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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Love and Passion
Ezra Pound's "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter," a dramatic monologue written in the form of a letter, is a poignant plea from a wife to her husband, a merchant whose journey has lasted far too long for the wife's ease of mind. The poem honors constancy and faithfulness as the wife reflects on the development of their life together and expresses her growing sorrow as she anxiously awaits his return.

One important theme in the poem reveals the process through which the love between the man and woman develops. In the opening lines of the poem, the wife recalls her childhood when her husband was simply a playmate, a companion. The first line gives a vivid picture of the wife as a child. The use of the passive tense, making bangs the subject, helps create the world from a child's perspective, not actively involved in decisions about what to wear or how to look. This creates both a clear physical portrait, as well as indicating the passivity of childhood with its lack of involvement in things other than play. Notice that the second line begins "I played." This also foreshadows the lack of input she will have in her marriage. The poem then moves on to describe the carefree merriment of the speaker and her future husband. The wife reinforces this picture of innocent pleasure with her comment, "Two small people, without dislike or suspicion."

In the second stanza, the reader learns of her marriage, at the age of fourteen. The wife's description clearly suggests that it has been forced upon her, and she is both shy and uncomfortable with her husband. The formality of the phrase, "I married My Lord you," not only indicates the proprieties that would be common in China during that period, but, for the modern reader, emphasizes the emotional distance in the marriage. Her statement that she never laughed contrasts jarringly with her earlier picture of the two companions at ease in their world. In the fourth line of the second stanza, the husband hopes to win her as he calls to her "a thousand times." However, she only looks at the wall, lowering her heard, refusing to look back and answer his summons.

With the final four lines of the stanza, she suddenly indicates that their relationship has changed as "at fifteen [she] stopped scowling." Her next words show how dramatically her love has grown. She now "desired [her] dust to be mingled with [his] / Forever." Their union is not only welcome, but for her the end of their relationship is unthinkable. She wishes it to continue throughout eternity. Ironically, now that this love has developed, the husband's trip separates them, creating the poem's real poignancy. The reader has followed this relationship from childhood joy, through the reluctant wife's initial unhappiness, until their love matures. The two are now torn apart, and the wife is left alone to mourn his absence. The growth and development of this relationship allows the reader a greater understanding of her loss and pain.

The portrait of the growth of their love provides a rich context to allow the reader to fully appreciate another of the poem's themes, faithfulness or constancy. When the speaker's husband left, she had just learned to love him. The reader understands her regret that her newfound passion was too brief. She also hints about her fears for his safe return: he has traveled "into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies." It is clear that he has been gone much longer than she had expected. Although she never...

(This entire section contains 1087 words.)

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mentions the possible dangers of traveling such a river, the reader realizes that rapids or whirlpools could explain why he has been gone so long. This would be even clearer to a Chinese reader since an ancient boatman's song tells of the perils of traveling on this particular stretch of river.

The letter makes clear how painful the wait has become for her. The two short sentences in line 25 make a strong impression. Mentioning "the paired butterflies," she simply states, "They hurt me," leaving the reader to fathom her world of pain. She continues by noting that she has grown so much older, an aging that is emotional rather than physical. However, she remains brave in her wait, ending the letter with the message that she will come to meet him, if he will only send word. She holds fast to the thought of his return, despite the hints of trouble that nature has provided: the overgrown moss, the early autumn.

Hugh Kenner, who has written several books about Pound, believes that "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" along with the poet's other verse published in 1915 provide some of the most effective emotional responses to the circumstances of World War I. Indeed, the parallel between the situation of the wife in the poem and women throughout Europe writing letters of love and longing to soldiers called away to war is striking. While this poem has no military theme, it involves the same sense of loss, of fear, of waiting: the insecurity about whether the loved one will, in fact, return. Interestingly enough, this parallel reinforces the universality of the theme in the poem. That a poem composed in the voice of a Chinese woman in the eighth century provides such an accurate emotional description of a wife or lover waiting for news from the World War I front adds to its enormous poignancy.

In a 1918 essay titled "Chinese Poetry," Pound described the central qualities of the Chinese verse-form. One was the use of nature imagery to explain or indicate human emotion or set mood. He referred to this as "metaphor by sympathy." This use of nature is a major factor in setting the tone of the final stanzas of "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter." While the five months the husband has been gone may not seem a terrible burden to the reader initially, Pound uses nature to cue the reader to mood. The "sorrowful" monkeys mirror the wife's feelings. The fact that the merchant "dragged [his] feet," cutting a path through the moss, shows his reluctance to leave; the fact that the moss has eradicated those marks of his presence, casts a worrying shadow. Much of nature, the wind, the seasons, the leaves, seems out of order reinforcing the wife's foreboding. "The paired butterflies" provide a final, almost unbearable, touch. While these delicate creatures remain together, they torment her with the reminder that her own love is gone.

Themes and Meanings

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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.