woman sitting and writing on a piece of paper with her hand on her cheeck with a river and butterflies in the background

The River-Merchant's Wife

by Ezra Pound

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

American critic and poet T. S. Eliot has called Pound "the inventor of Chinese poetry" for the twentieth century. Nevertheless, he sees Cathay: Translations, containing the much anthologized poem " The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter," as more than intelligent literary archaeology of poems from eighth century China. It establishes Pound's particular literary genius "for expressing himself through historical masks" that would become the hallmark of his later major work, the Cantos. It is Eliot's critical assessment, furthermore, that the value of Pound's work in this collection is the clarity with which he presents his perception that "the present is no more than the present significance of the past." In fact, Eliot maintains that Pound's translations of ancient Chinese poetry are decidedly Modernist because they affirm the universality of human experience through time and across cultures.

Eliot grants that while Pound's style in these translations might not reflect that of the Chinese originals, his poetic concern for image provides an effective means for "transporting the content" of the original picture-making Chinese ideograms. Thus the value of these poems is not as Chinese translations, but as a stage in the development of Pound's poetic concerns from his original concepts of "luminous detail" and "Imagism," through "vortex" and "haiku" and "metaphor," and ultimately to the "ideogrammatic composition" of his Cantos.

Pound is not generally viewed as especially gifted in composing his own original poems, but the accusation of Chinese language scholars that he mistranslates the poems of this volume is brushed aside by such critics of poetry as Hugh Kenner, who is perfectly willing to read them as "Pound's interpretative paraphrases that are informed by his own concerns and background." It is Michael Alexander's estimation that these poems have been "underrated" as mere translations, rather than appreciated for their highly disciplined free verse. Indeed, as William Pratt has noted, "the relatively pure images of Cathay ... seem less and less like translations and more and more like original poems."

William Van O'Connor suggests that Pound's "translations" have a song-like quality, which he notes especially in "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter." In this poem Pound's belief that poetry always had and always should reflect the conversational speech of its day combines with his intensive study of musical forms to achieve the composition of lyrical natural lines toward the development of the convincing voice of the poem's persona.

M. L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall acknowledge the "rhythmic successes" of such poems as "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" as responsible for a move away from dramatic presentation of character and monologue toward "what the poem before us is creating." It is their contention that these poems go beyond "Imagism" and "phanopoeia" ("the casting of images upon the visual imagination"), engendering a progression of centered images in a sequence, or pattern, of human thought and emotion.

Accordingly, David E. Ward postulates that the guiding principle of Pound's theory is a belief in a shared poetic tradition that allows full expression of the emotional patterns of human experience and response. "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" is an eloquent manifestation of this principle.

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Essays and Criticism