Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The River-Merchant's Wife cover image

Pound’s introduction of poetry by Li Bo into the Western literary canon was a part of his program to increase cultural awareness. Pound viewed “criticism” in the largest sense to include versions of literary creation, such as “criticism by translation” and “criticism in new composition.” His adaptation of “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” was designed to open the field of early Chinese civilization to Western eyes, and he succeeded so well that T. S. Eliot remarked on the appearance of Cathay (1915) that it “invented Chinese poetry for our time.” Some professional sinologists attacked Pound for his lack of accuracy, but he dismissed their inability to appreciate the power of his poetry and his approach to translation.

Pound was interested in innovative uses of familiar forms, and he admired Robert Browning’s employment of dramatic monologue to capture the spirit of a moment in historic time. Pound believed that Browning’s work permitted a combination of the “human” or distinctly personal and the cultural, or socially resonant. Such crucial elements of “The River-Merchant’s Wife” as the correspondence of human emotion to natural setting, the representation of the eternal cycle of the seasons as time’s passage and human growth, and the linking of romantic intensity with restraint and composure are products of Pound’s fusion of Browning’s methods and Li Bo’s artistry.

Ford Madox Ford commented that “the poems in Cathay are things of supreme beauty. What poetry should be, that they are.” Pound took the ultimate vessel for expressing feeling—the lyric—and used its full capacity for transmitting essential human emotions within the mode of the dramatic monologue. Pound’s fervent proclamation that “nothing matters but the quality of affection” is the primary principle of his philosophy of composition and is at the heart of the appeal of “The River-Merchant’s Wife.” Without striking false notes or falling into sentimentality, Pound has shown that what he loved well—language, culture, and art—remains as his poetic legacy in his finest work.