“The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” is a poem originally composed by Li-Po in 701-762 AD, then translated by Ezra Pound. The poem was translated in 1915 and was published as part of Cathay, Pound’s collection. This “Letter” Poem is not written in rhyme, however the images and musical tones found within the prose compensate for this. Living in London at that time, Pound discovered the Imagistic movement, he felt that the Chinese had long practiced imagism. The technique is present in the poem from beginning to end. This text will be discussing the author’s images of love and sorrow by means of a Chinese woman’s life.
The woman writing the letter begins with her childhood memories. Since Chinese girls all have straight bangs, the first line proves us she is talking about herself as a child. The author repeats the word “playing” three consecutive times describing the children’s innocents (Pound 2,3,4). Pound also uses flowers, bamboo stilts, and blue plums all of which are the serene playing objects of the characters, representing nature. This may be yet another sign of innocence. In the first line the woman says she “still” has bangs, this may mean that she is still innocent and naive at the time she is writing the letter, waiting for her husband.
Then, the two children move together. However, love does not seem to be an important element in the woman’s childhood memories. One can say this because in the sixth line she says they left “without dislikes or suspicions” (Pound 6). From this we can assume that they did not feel love for one another, she relates to their love as a plain and neutral relationship. Chinese traditions involved the father choosing his daughters’ husband. We can expect this to have happened in this poem leading us to believe that there are no real feelings of love. Since she got married with this man at fourteen, she was shy and timid. Pound conveys to us that there is no joy within her as she was authorized to be with him; she had no choice but to be with him so never looked back.
Moreover, the poet refers to the woman’s husband as “My Lord you”, which indicates the husband’s domineering attitude and demand for respect (Pound 7). Nevertheless, Pound softens this by placing a “you” after “My Lord”. This keeps the sentence from ending roughly, and also conveys the impression that the woman has accepted this fact. We also know that at the time she is writing she does love him. Perhaps if she had written the letter at fourteen years of age, she may have seen him simply as her Lord.
After a year of marriage, the woman changes her thoughts and feelings towards her husband. She then believes that she loves him and will do so forever. Pound insists on “forever” leading us to the realization of the extent of her new love (Pound 13). When she turns sixteen, her husband leaves to work in a river with swirling eddies, mirroring her worry and fright. She interprets the monkey’s noise as being of sorrow, again mirroring her grief. He did not want to leave her either as he left dragging his feet.
At this point, Pound reverses his style, plunging into multiple levels of abstract images. Five months, maybe more, pass and the moss by the river has grown so deep that she can’t even remove it. This image can be viewed as sorrow growing in her heart, a feeling strongly affecting her. She also sees the darkness of autumn and the signs that it’s coming brings, such as leaves falling in wind. The paired butterflies are fading color, just like the relationship with her lover is fading. The line “Over the grass in the West garden;” makes us doubt that her husband is still alive (Pound 24). Since the West is where the sun sets, it often symbolizes death. It may also simply show the end of their relationship. Obviously, one can feel that her husband may never come back.
We do not know exactly what has happened to him, but it is put into light that she will probably never see him again. When the woman says in the letter that she desired her dust being mingled with his, she may have meant that she simply wanted to die and join him forever and ever. Although, she will wait for him and will never look for another man, she is ready to join him halfway through the river if ever he is still alive. After she has realized he did not come back, she might have returned to the place of their childhood. If so, an obvious contrast is offered by the happy playing of children with nature and the cold side of nature during the time she is lonesome and sad.
At one point the woman openly declares emotions for the first time in the letter: “They hurt me. I grow older” (Pound 25). All these fading natural images and statement of emotions empowers the fact that she is old and lonesome and that the grief she faces is speeding her aging. The moss, the arrival of early autumn, the butterflies and the West garden make her realize how old she is and how she suffers. Her vision of there events is warped by her pain, keeping her from realizing any good. In the last ten and a half lines the reader can feel the speed with which her life is slipping away. It passes very quickly, as if compressing her pain, making it bearable in a lonesome background. Pound puts gentleness to the poem by ending it with hope; the beginning represents children’s innocents, and then goes through pain and grief, to finish with the hope of joining her husband again.
Through great images of nature the author of this poem shows us the impact of grief upon one who is apart from her love. This journey through the life of a Chinese woman, first forced to marry and then despite herself falls in love with this man, is about human sorrow and how we deal with separation. The translation by Pound resounds with grief and effectively makes use of natural imagery. This letter is not sent to anyone, it simply goes through her life and emotions as if she is talking to herself. The poem contains a lot of “I” and “you” so that the reader can personally relate to it. Her husband’s departure soon after she began to truly love him causes her to feel pain and grief, causing her perception of the world to change Even though the man is supposed to be back, there still is doubts in the images given to us that never he will return; he may have died or may simply decide to never come back. However, we can hope that happiness will come anew.