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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Essays and Criticism

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It is said that Pound created the Chinese poem in English. The attributes of Asian poetry, particularly of Chinese poetry, that are now familiar to students of poetry—clean, spare, description; quiet tones; precise use of proper nouns and simple active verbs—are familiar in large part because of Pound. Despite this achievement, Pound's contemporary, the great American poet Robert Frost, dismissed the very idea of poetic translation as impossible: "Poetry," he said, "is what gets lost in translation." According to Frost, poetry is so specific to its host language that if one translates a poem one loses all that made it poetic in the first place. Poetry, according to Frost, is so dependent on the music of the spoken sound of the actual language, that no foreign language poem could ever be appreciated for its poetry if rendered into English. It would, in effect, be like reading an opera without ever hearing a note of it performed.

"The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter" may well be the best challenge to Frost's theory available in English. In this poem, Pound translates from the Chinese to the English and, as the great critic of Modern poetry Hugh Kenner wrote in The Pound Era, he "invents Chinese poetry for our time." The poem is a funny kind of translation because it comes from the notebooks of Ernest Fenellosa, a notable scholar of Japanese and Chinese literature. Because Fenellosa was mostly familiar with Japanese, he, himself, translated the poems' Chinese proper names into Japanese. As a result, all of the proper names, even the name of the poet who originally wrote "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter," are given their name in Japanese translation. The note to the poem says the poet was Rihaku but that is just the Japanese name for Li Po. When Pound made this translation, he was living in London, in Kensington. This American living in London, therefore, came across the world of Chinese poetry by reading the work of another American scholar. As Kenner put it: "A Li Po ... reach[ed] Kensington by way of Tokyo, through the intercession of [Fenollosa] a Harvard-educated enthusiast of Spanish descent." Pound knew Fenollosa's work because the scholar's wife had given him his notebooks. The notebooks contained translations, or notes on 150 poems. Of them, Pound translated 14 into English, and of them, "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter" has achieved the status of masterpiece.

This poem is so well regarded because, ultimately, it translates on three distinct levels. First, Pound transcribes the words and their meaning from the Chinese language to the English. Second, he translates one cultural tradition, China and the Far East, into the idiom of another cultural tradition: Anglo-American culture. Third, he translates the ancient past—the events of the original Chinese poem which take place in the eighth century—into the present of the twentieth century. In so doing, Pound manages to convey a culturally specific remote world—eighth-century China—into the modern twentieth century.

How did Pound do it? As Kenner notes about the little volume of translations, Cathay (1915), that Pound published and that contains "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter," its "real achievement" lay in its ability to "rethink the nature of an English poem." In this poem, Pound raised some fundamental questions: must poetry have meter and rhyme, or if not rhyme, meter? Might "free verse" be a source not just for translation but for genuine poetry? Pound's answer was "yes."

"The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter," for example, makes use of "free-verse" technique. That is to say, from one line to the next, the poem follows no consistent...

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metrical or rhyming pattern. Pound is able to maintain a Chinese-language feeling in the poem because of the freedom such verse permits. Again, Kenner tells us that Pound's translations from the Chinese were the very first in English ever to be derived from the transcription of the actual Chinese words, Fenollosa's "detailed notes on Chinese texts." Pound, in other words, did not use some other English translation. More importantly, they were, says Kenner, the first English translations to "abandon rhyme and fixed stress count." What this means is that Pound refuses to mimic a Chinese metrical pattern that would only make sense to Chinese speakers. Had Pound tried to make the poem sound Chinese or conform to Chinese rules of poetry he would, indeed, have lost the poetry in the translation: the poem would sound silly, artificial, even weird to English speakers unfamiliar with Chinese sound patterns. Similarly, Pound also refuses to make the poem fit into one of the many English metrical forms available. Had he done that there would be no Chinese sound to the poem at all. Instead, he resorts to free verse, to no one particular sound or rhyme pattern at all. In so doing, he is able to invent his own formal rules and thus create a Chinese-sounding rhythm, music, and beauty. In short, he makes poetry happen by making up his own set of rules.

How is it possible for Pound to render the Chinese into English? How did he do it? What are the rules he adopted for his poem that enabled him to convey the distinctive quality of Chinese poetry in an English-language poem? The answer is simple: by describing things in exact detail and by focusing on culturally specific images and things in his poem that can only make sense if they are understood in the terms provided by eighth-century China. In this poem, Pound refuses to generalize. His rule is simple. Every poetic line will contain a specific image: new image, new line. Also, every stanza will develop a new chapter in the speaker's life—new period in her life, new stanza. In what follows, then, I offer a guide through the poem by looking carefully at these rules, at the line breaks, and the stanza divisions in order to show how the poem is built entirely out of specifically Chinese references, scenes, cultural assumptions, and imagery.

In the five stanzas that constitute this poem, Pound is able to convey the autobiography of a sixteen-year-old Chinese girl from nearly a thousand years ago (eighth century CE.) In so doing, he makes her and her story new. In the first stanza, for example, Pound develops the title of the poem: this is, in fact, to be understood as a letter written by a wife to her husband:

While my hair was still cut straight across my
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

Notable here is the focus on what we can see. Not only does the surface, obvious imagery reveal the location: this is China, and this is a Chinese woman talking, but it also reveals a deeper more interesting psychological story as well. Notice how this stanza depends on particulars, on visible things, not on generalizations. Notice that the woman does not say, "I've know you a very long time husband, ever since we were kids." Instead, every single line gives a new image, a new thing to understand. Remember the rule: new image, new line. For example, in the first line she talks about "her hair cut straight." This implies, and we can only know this from the context provided both by the poem's note and by the title, that she is telling us about her life as a girl. Evidently, this is a hairstyle common to unmarried Chinese girls. In the second line, she gives us a new image and in this image the story moves a little further along. Her childhood was happy, serene, and pleasant. The simple image of the flowers conveys this meaning. In the third line a new image and a new character are introduced. Now we meet her future husband, a fun-loving kid. Note that we know this only from the specific objects of his play, "bamboo stilts," "horse": these objects reveal the scene to be in Asia, not in America. In short, the Chinese aspect of the poem is made visible to us through the writer's focus on the things of Chinese life: the customs of the people, the games of the children. Notice, too, that the tone of this stanza is quiet. The many commas and pauses force us to speak the lines quietly, deliberately.

Just as every line conveys one single new image, one new element, so, too, every stanza contains a new chapter in the life of this woman. If the first chapter, or stanza, depicts her childhood, then, the second stanza depicts her life as a wife:

At fourteen I married My Lord you. I never
laughed, being bashful. Lowering my head, I
looked at the wall. Called to a thousand times, I
never looked back.

By the second stanza, the poem "feels" Chinese. Why? Because of the quiet tone, certainly, but more than that because of the specific imagery. The details, here, depict a traditional, and traditionally submissive wife in eighth-century China, a girl who becomes a "woman" at the age of fourteen. By raising these new and culturally specific points, this stanza also introduces a new set of issues. For why on earth should this wife have to remind her husband that he is her husband and that they did know each other? If this poem really is a letter she surely should not have to tell her husband what he must very well know.

What is happening is that these first two stanzas establish a justification for the rest of the poem—three stanzas of complaint, of quiet anger. In the end, what the poem depicts is a portrait of the inner life of a woman. Ultimately, the poem/letter is meant to remind her husband of her role as his wife, of her existence, of their relationship. It is meant to be a gentle way of telling him not to forget, or betray her. Remember, she is a river-merchant's wife in eighth-century China. This is like being a traveling salesman's wife today. In those days, the river was the only major source of travel and commerce. Her husband, as a merchant, was more often not at home than at home. Evidently, his wife is tired of this situation. Therefore, she writes him a letter. The first two stanzas of this letter/poem establish her role as a good, submissive, Chinese wife of the eighth century. In effect, she is reminding him of their relationship so that he will know that if she complains she does so only as a good eighth-century partner in marriage. The first two stanzas, therefore, give her the right to complain because they say, in effect, "I have been a good wife and as such a wife I now feel the need to speak."

The poetry, then, is as much in the story of this wife's quiet anger directed at her husband as it is in the way that the story is told. The poem feels as if it were in another language in part due to the rhythm, in part due to the tone, but, as I have been arguing, mostly because of the particular details and images. These details tell a decidedly old-fashioned culturally specific story of a lonely wife of a river merchant in a particular time and place. In stanza three:

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

This is a crucial stanza to the story of the poem because here the wife confesses the depths of her love for her husband. Notice, again, that Pound still adheres to his own rule: one image per line. Notice, too, that a new chapter has begun and so a new stanza begins. In this case, the chapter is her life after a year of marriage: her life at the age of fifteen. But her point here is to confess the depth of her love. If she "scowled" at first, now she would like to have their "dust" mingled. In these simple images the generalizing cliche, "I love you always and forever," is communicated through the use of specific images. How, then, are we to interpret this stanza's last line?

Three ways. First, the look out is the only means she has of seeing the return of her husband. Therefore, this is a rhetorical, sarcastic, ironic question. She is, in effect, saying: "how could you possibly think I don't miss you. Why should I climb the look out! Are you crazy? How could I not want to climb it?" Second: "I love you so much, our love is so eternal, my trust in you is so absolute that I have no need to climb the look out. Of course you will come back. Why should I climb a lookout to see if you are coming?" That would imply that she thinks he might not be coming back. She says, in effect, "since I know you will return I have no need to climb the look out. Why should I climb it?" This is my own personal reading of that line but a third reading is possible: "I don't know if you will come back. Will you? Give me a reason. Why should I climb the look out?" Whatever reading one assigns to that line, its position as the last line of the stanza is a kind of gauntlet thrown down to her husband. All three readings, after all, say, in effect, that she loves him dearly and hopes he loves her enough to return.

In the fourth stanza, therefore, the story moves to the result of such love. If the third stanza is an awakening to consciousness of the wife's love for her husband then the fourth stanza communicates her sadness. Both stanzas are remarkable because a wife in the eighth century had no right to confess her feelings about anything. If her husband abandons her to go on business, her job as a "good wife" was to suffer in silence and wait. Yet, she decides, despite the cultural tradition against such talk, to express her feelings. And, not only does she express the depths of her love, but she dares even to complain. For her to say that she is lonely, that, in fact, she is also a little angry as well, is, in the terms of the time period, all but heresy:

At sixteen you departed,
and you went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of
swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months. The
monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

In this stanza, we are brought into the present moment. This chapter of her life is now, the present telling of the tale. Here she says that she is now 16 years old. What she implies, then, is that just as she grew accustomed to their life as a married couple (the past year), he left. The third line of this stanza is quiet and seems to be nothing more than description. But the tone here must be read in terms of the larger context. For her to say, "you have been gone five months" is another way of saying, "I am so lonely!" It is even a complaint: "how could you abandon me, your own wife, for so long!" We are trained to see this because of the final image concluding the stanza. The monkeys, in a way, become a metaphor for the emotional state of the wife. Their "sorrowful noise" merely speaks aloud what she feels.

The most interesting and poignant section of the poem is the concluding fifth stanza. For here, the new chapter is not a new period in her life but a new awareness, a realization, a new sense of what it means to be a wife, and especially this Chinese wife. This stanza is a particular triumph of the one new image, one new line rule. And of the all the images in this stanza the following should be singled out:

The paired butterflies are already yellow with
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.

This girl's contemplation of the butterflies, of the natural order of things, of continuity in nature, of growth and renewal, and of beauty in companionship is another way of her saying: "I realize now how much I have lost with you, my husband, being gone." If we read the butterflies as a metaphor for her and her husband then she is saying that she and he are like paired butterflies except that they are not together. To see such pairs, then, "hurts" her because it reminds her how much she needs her husband. Notice, then, that this anger, and this complaint is based entirely on love. Only after her husband is absent does she realize the meaning of and the depth of her own love. In this letter/poem, then, she is communicating that love. To say "I grow older" is another way of saying, "I have grown wiser." She now understands the meaning of love. The last four lines of the poem, then, are more than just description. They are the inevitable result of the wisdom she has come to only now, in this fifth stanza.

The final four lines tell us that she is prepared to wait, that she will not give up on her husband, that if she feels angry she is by no means angry about or mistrustful of his love. In the end, the poem becomes a kind of meditative ode—a poem where one speaker in the course of the poem teaches herself a truth. It may only go as far as "Cho-fu-sa," and it may depend entirely on our knowledge as readers of what it means to be an eighth-century Chinese wife. Indeed, if that is the case, if it is true that her knowledge, her wisdom can only make sense if we know what it is like to be a Chinese sixteen-year-old wife in the eighth century then this poem as a translation from the Chinese of Li Po has, thanks to Pound, given us another culture and another time: it has become a masterpiece of translation itself.

Source: Jonathan N. Barron, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.


Critical Overview