The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter
by Ezra Pound
Analysis: Form and Meter
In a formal sense, we must first acknowledge that, while he was up to something boldly experimental and groundbreaking with "A River Merchant's Wife," Pound didn't really know squat about the meter of Chinese poetry. (It helps, you know, if you speak Chinese, which he didn't really.) So, even though he was "translating," he didn't even try to re-create any authentic "meter" out of Ernest Fenollosa's notes on this poem. (For more on Fenollosa, please check out our "In a Nutshell" and "Why Should I Care?" sections too.)
That wasn't the point for Pound. When we talk about form, then, we have to consider the way in which he structured the poem around its content. Through five stanzas, the poem chronicles the life of the speaker. We move from her early childhood, to her sexual awakening, to full comfort in her marriage, and end with her present state: longing for her husband.
Formally, stanzas 2, 3, and 4 are almost mirror images of each other, with their basic form of four lines each and their content of how the speaker transformed over that year. This mirroring helps us readers get the sense of each year in a compact stanza. And when we get to the longest and final stanza, we really start to feel how loneliness of the current year takes up the wife's time and energy.
If you ask us, the most interesting formal change in the poem occurs in lines 25 and 26. These short lines of single-syllable words really draw attention to themselves in that they make the reader pause after having read twenty-four pretty long lines (long as far as modern poetry is concerned). As we then pay attention to this shift, we really get to focus on the emotional climax of the speaker's monologue.
Pound's use of free verse, then, is due in part to his focus on the emotional resonance of the poem's speaker. He's not caught up in duplicating stodgy old rhythms and patterns. He's up to something wild and new (for his time, anyway). Free verse removes any metrical constraints, and he's free to go right for the emotional jugular. Touché, Mr. Pound. Touché.