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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The Poem

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Ezra Pound’s adaptation of a poem by Li Bo, an eighth century Chinese poet, is a dramatic monologue spoken by a sixteen-year-old girl. It is written in open verse in the form of a letter from the wife of a river-merchant to her husband, who has been away from their home for five months.

The opening of the poem conveys both immediacy and continuance. The first line begins with the word “while” and presents an image of the wife as a young girl. The second line starts with the word “I” and contains an image of the girl playing at the moment when she met her future husband. The effect that is created is a feeling of recollection which draws time’s passage across the consciousness of the present. The focus is shifted from the “I” to a memory of “you.” The first stanza concludes with the couple merging into “we”—“small people” who lived in a village in a state of unreflective innocence.

The second stanza begins a triad of quatrains that recapitulate the three years of their marriage. In the first of these, the girl remembers herself at fourteen as severe, contained, and shy at the moment of the ceremony. She seemed to be acting out of obligation. Then, at fifteen, she began to relax and remembers that she “desired” to join her husband in both temporal and etherial realms, recognizing the immediate call of the physical as well as the transcendant appeal of the eternal. Her question that concludes the third stanza is a compression by Pound of a tale of a woman who waited on a tower for her husband’s return. In his cryptic reference, he implies that the woman is content to be in her husband’s company or to be by herself. The fourth stanza moves to the present, and the wife is now sixteen. Five months ago, the river-merchant had departed on some unexplained journey. He has covered considerable distance in both geographic and temporal terms, and the wife expresses her unhappiness.

The last section of the poem, an extended stanza of ten lines, is located entirely in the immediate present. It is a powerful expression of the wife’s feelings and an attempt to demonstrate to the river-merchant how she has grown into a mature and more complete stage of love. Her references to the seasonal changes in the natural world indicate that she no longer entertains a concept of a theoretical love which is “forever and forever and forever” but has realized that nothing can exist outside of time. The image of mosses in an accumulation “too deep to clear them away!” suggests the effect of time’s passage, and the image of “paired butterflies” shows that she is aware of love’s delicacy and fragility. Her maturity is registered by the extremely powerful use of the only active verb in the poem: Her statement “They hurt me” refers to seasonal changes and their consequences. Her reflective utterance “I grow older” summarizes the range and scope of time that the poem encompasses.

The last part of this stanza contains a reversal of mood. Demonstrating her resiliency and depth of character, the wife now addresses her husband as an equal partner. Adopting an almost businesslike tone but maintaining her care and concern, she expresses her confidence in herself by declaring that she too will leave the protection of their home in order to meet him along the river Kiang. The willingness to travel along the river herself solidifies the relationship, and the reference to Cho-fu-Sa (Pound’s version of the Chinese Ch’ang-feng-sha or “long wind beach”) is a specific...

(This entire section contains 628 words.)

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commitment to a particular place, rather than the previous nebulous “forever” of the second year of her marriage.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Alexander, Michael, The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound, University of California Press, 1979, 247 p.

Eliot, T. S., "The Method of Pound," The Athenaeum, No. 4669, October 24, 1919, pp. 1065-66.

Kenner, Hugh, The Pound Era, Berkeley: California University Press, 1971.

O'Connor, William Van, Ezra Pound, ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers" series, No. 26), University of Minnesota Press, 1963.

Pratt, William, "Ezra Pound and the Image," in Ezra Pound: The London Years: 1908-1920, edited by Philip Grover, AMS Press, 1978, pp. 15-30.

Rosenthal, M. L., and Sally M. Gall, "Ezra Pound I: The Early Sequences," in their The Modern Poetic Sequence: "The Genius of Modern Poetry," Oxford University Press, 1983, pp. 184-203.

Ward, David E, "The Emperor's Clothes?" Essays in Criticism, January, 1968, pp. 68-73.

For Further Study
Chisholm, Lawrence W., Fenollosa: The Far East and American Culture, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.
This book contains an interesting description of the influence of Oriental thought and art on many American artists and philosophers.

Froula, Christine, A Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Poems, New York: New Directions, 1982.
This helpful introduction to Pound includes comments on the wife's attitudes in the "The River Mer-chan't Wife."

Kenner, Hugh, The Poetry of Ezra Pound, Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1951.
This is one of the best sources for a clear introduction to Pound and his poetry.

Witemeyer, Hugh, The Poetry of Ezra Pound, Forms and Renewal, 1908-1920, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
The book discusses Pound's perspectives on Chinese poetry, discussing its similarity to Imagism.

Yip, Wai-lim, Ezra Pound's Cathay, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.
In this detailed study of Cathay, Yip examines three stages of the poems: the original, Fenollosa's English version, and Pound's translation.

Forms and Devices

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Pound wrote that “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Pound believed that the essence of this method, called Imagism, had been captured by the Chinese ideogram, which fused picture and meaning in one symbol.

The striking opening image of “The River-Merchant’s Wife” captures an entire cultural epoch. Pound originally used the American slang “bangs,” but the taut language of “hair was still cut straight” is an accurate rendering of the ideogram and of the appearance of young Chinese girls of that era. This image is followed by one of the river-merchant as a boy, his masculine aspects immediately established by his appearance “on bamboo stilts, playing horse” while she follows the traditional feminine activity of “pulling flowers.” Their early sensual attraction is implied by the boy parading around her and “playing with blue plums.”

The playful imagery of the first stanza is abruptly replaced by images of unease and uncertainty when the couple are actually married in her fourteenth year. She is presented as “scowling,” “bashful,” and never laughing. The wall is an image of enclosure and her desire to “mingle” their dust forever suggests claustrophobia and internment. The psychological condition of their first year of marriage has been precisely evoked.

When the river-merchant departs during the third year of their marriage, the images show how the girl’s sense of herself, her marriage, and the world is evolving. The river imagery (“swirling eddies” and “narrows”) indicates the dangers of the outside world. The husband, previously on stilts, now drags his feet under the pressure of responsibility. The wife’s sorrow is accentuated by seasonal references, the moss grown “too deep to clear” both a sign of time’s passage and a symbol for the weight of loneliness. The “paired butterflies” remind her of her single state, and her vision of them “already yellow with August” is a projection of her sense of accelerated time.

The final image of the poem is a parallel one in which the wife and her husband are both depicted on the river Kiang, its “narrows” demarking it as a place of menace. They are moving toward each other, their resolve to overcome obstacles a testament to the possibilities of a future in which the separate “I” and “you” of the poem will be joined as an unstated “we”—a union quite different from the separate lives of the “we” in the first stanza. This transference completes the cycle of shifting personal pronouns that functions as a frame for the imagery. From the introduction of the individual “I” and “you,” to Pound’s brilliant inversion “I married My Lord you” (which combines direct address with continuing personal consciousness), to the series of almost accusatory “you’s,” to the use of the third-person “they” to indicate fate in the last stanza, the variants anchor the images and reinforce their meanings.

Historical Context

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Chinese history presents a rich and complex tapestry. Archaeologists believe that the first organized society, the Shang dynasty, existed from approximately 1500 to 1100 B.C. Excavations reveal an agrarian yet artistic culture. From these beginnings, Chinese civilization developed a sophisticated governmental system, as well as a rich philosophical and artistic tradition. Although similar developments were occurring in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, there was only sporadic contact between the two cultures, a communication based on trade. While the Silk Road carried caravans between China and the Roman Empire, almost all interactions were limited to commercial exchanges, controlled by the traders who dominated the route.

Because of the economic importance of this trade, the Han dynasty, which ruled China from approximately 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., expanded the boundaries of China, in a successful effort to gain control of the Silk Road. However, they were not interested in cultural exchanges with outsiders. The Han ruled using a tribute system. Since they believed non-Chinese were barbarians, diplomatic relations and trading rights were extended only to those peoples who would recognize the superiority of the Chinese and prove it with the payment of a tribute. This attitude toward the rest of the world continued throughout most of Chinese history. Although visitors came to China to learn from the accomplishments of the various dynasties, they remained outsiders, not assimilated into the society.

This was true during the Tang dynasty, which assumed control in the seventh century. Many historians call this era the golden age of China, which was, at the time, the wealthiest and the most extensive empire in the world. Literature, painting, sculpture, as well as other arts flourished. Scholarship was encouraged and two encyclopedias were produced during that period. The Chinese also made several technological advances, and government was directed by a code of laws based on Confucian principles.

This Chinese culture provides a sharp contrast to the western world at this time. In the eighth century, when Chinese poet Li Po wrote, Europe was struggling to emerge from the chaos caused by the fall of the Roman Empire. Muslim Arabs had invaded Spain; Slavic invaders attacked from the East. Although Charlemagne attempted to recreate a new Holy Roman Empire, the strong nation states of Europe would not emerge for a few more centuries. Ironically, the old trade routes between East and West continued unabated, since the turmoil never diminished the demand for spices from the Orient.

By the twelfth century, however, the power balance was reversed. Warring factions weakened China, and this left the nation vulnerable to the onslaught of the Mongol forces led by the great warrior, Genghis Khan, who extended his empire across Asia. After his death, power was distributed among his sons and China was left to the care of his son, Kublai Khan, who recognized the achievements and scholarship of the Chinese.

Kublai Khan is familiar to westerners because of the writings of Marco Polo who visited the imperial court in 1275. When his accounts of the grandeur, even superiority, of the Asian world first reached Europe, these tales were considered to be more fantasy than reality. However, since there had been commercial contact between East and West for centuries, eventually similar reports reinforced the claims of Marco Polo. The riches of the Orient soon became an irresistible lure to western explorers and adventurers.

Both China and the nations that emerged in Europe during the late medieval and Renaissance periods were proud, even arrogant. The Chinese dynasties, on their part, felt no need to pursue anything beyond their own boundaries. They were self-sufficient, possessors of a rich and elaborate culture. Foreigners were still viewed as barbarians. In the western world, on the other hand, the development of strong nation states fueled the desire for exploration and conquest. Explorers believed that the new worlds that were now discovered were rightly theirs, to claim and plunder. Seagoing journeys revived interest in the East. In fact, Columbus's voyage was supported by Ferdinand and Isabella, the rulers of Spain, because they had visions of great profits to be taken from the Orient. The Portuguese, who were the first to reach China, in 1514, planned to gain fortunes by seizing control of the rich spice trade, which was dominated by Arab traders. The Chinese authorities were dismayed by the arrival of these "barbarians." Rumors abounded along the areas where the Portuguese sailed that they were cannibals who wanted to buy or steal children to eat them. The Chinese government attempted to limit all foreign influence as much as possible, refusing to permit colonies on the mainland. Only mercantile, not diplomatic, relations existed between China and Europe.

Eventually, as the West sought to force China to allow more trade, conflict became inevitable. Each side felt themselves unfairly treated; each felt themselves a superior culture. England resented the failure of China to respond to its diplomatic overtures. China was insulted by the insensitive behavior of English diplomats. England wanted Chinese tea, but unfortunately produced no comparable item that the Chinese desired. Therefore, they tried to force China to make opium legal so that the English could bring it to China from India in exchange for the tea. The eventual result was the Opium Wars. England eventually won both wars, forcing China to open more ports and allow the importation of opium.

Although China still struggled to resist western aggression, the nation was forced to endure continual attacks on its sovereignty. Eventually resentment caused the formation of secret societies who, in 1899, launched several attacks against westerners in China. Although this movement, the Boxer Rebellion, was quashed within a year, it helped bring about a new government for China. In 1912, just three years before Cathay was published, the Republic of China was formed with Sun Yat-sen as its president.


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Froula, Christine. A Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1983.

Heymann, David. Ezra Pound: The Last Rower. New York: Viking Press, 1976.

Kenner, Hugh. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. London: Faber & Faber, 1951. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Knapp, James F. Ezra Pound. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Laughlin, James. Pound as Wuz: Essays and Lectures on Ezra Pound. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1987.

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Ezra Pound: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Stock, Noel. The Life of Ezra Pound. 1970. Rev. ed. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982.

Surette, Leon. Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Tryphonopoulos, Demetres P., and Stephen J. Adams, eds. The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Literary Style

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This translation, “ The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” is structured into 5 stanzas: the first of 6 lines, and the second, third, and fourth of 4 lines each. Each of the first four stanzas is image-centered, focusing an emotional point in the history of the relationship between the river-merchant’s wife and her husband. The final stanza of 10 lines and a dropped half-line begins with the presentation of T h e R i v e r - M e r c h a n t ’ s W i f e : A L e t t e r Topics for Further Study • In 1948, Ezra Pound won the Bollingen Prize for the best volume of poetry published that year. Many people were highly critical of this award since he had been accused of treason during World War II by the U.S. government. Evaluate both sides of the controversy and explain which position you find most convincing. • The letter is a common device used in both literature and song. Find some other examples of letters, and discuss whether the author has used the letter form effectively. • Both Pound and Li-Po found themselves in conflict with governmental authorities. Compare/ contrast their difficulties. 1 6 8 P o e t r y f o r S t u d e n t s a similar central image that collects an enhancing detail in each line until line 25 shifts into direct emotional statement. The last four lines mix this direct letter-writing style with the final image closing the physical and emotional distance between the river-merchant and his wife.

It was Pound’s belief that the pictorial quality of the Chinese ideogram, in its “closeness to the thing itself,” had the capacity for raising the mundane to the poetic. Likewise, Pound’s ear for the music of conversational speech raised natural speech rhythms to the level of poetry. In this poem he expertly combines these to create a sense of the conversational naturalness of letter-writing with the focused, direct, and simple presentation of image inspired by the Chinese ideograms in which the poem was originally written.

Pound’s insistence on the centrality of image to poetry is in great part responsible for the varied line lengths of this poem written in unrhymed free verse. While each of the first four stanzas concentrates on one image, the individual lines themselves are as long as Pound needs them to be to focus each component of the central image of the stanza in the mind of the reader. This technique is termed endstopped lines, meaning that a complete idea is expressed in a line, with no spillover into the next line. However, the use of capital letters at the beginnings of each line is a signal that it is the lines of poetry, rather than the sentence constructions, that are the basic units of meaning.

The poet employs direct address throughout the poem, taking on the persona of the wife as the “I” who is writing the letter and thus entering her experience. This use of the first-person “I” also makes it possible for the reader of the poem to enter her experience. In addition, the direct address to the second-person “you” allows the poem also to be experienced as if it is a letter to the reader.

Media Adaptations

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Unapix released a 1995 biography titled Ezra Pound.

Ezra Pound: Visions and Voices, a 1988 Mystic Fire Video, presents Pound's life and poetry.




Critical Essays