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The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter

The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter


by Ezra Pound

Stanza 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 1-2

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.

  • To begin with, we know that this is a letter from a wife to her husband and that her husband is a merchant. (Thanks title! For more on that, check out "What's Up With the Title?".)
  • We can guess that the detail about having hair cut straight across her forehead implies that she's writing about herself as a child (perhaps at the mercy of a less-than-stylish young haircut, like those awful bowl cuts).
  • Additional details about her childhood include the memory of a specific event when she was pulling flowers out by the front gate where she lived.
  • Notice how the flowers seem reluctant to being picked. They aren't plucked, or picked even. They're "pull[ed]" from the ground, which sounds like they may have been reluctant to go.

Lines 3-4

You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

  • The speaker recalls when this boy (who we guess now to be her husband and the addressee of the letter) came by on stilts.
  • Apparently it caught her attention, because he was playing about and maybe even juggling some plums. Yeah, we'd notice that, too.
  • Also, notice the two different uses of "playing."
  • The first "playing" suggests that the boy (now husband) pretended to be (or to ride) a horse, while the second playing suggests something like juggling.
  • Also, we have two possible ways to read the word "seat." One could be, in the literal sense, a chair in which the girl sat. Another way to read it is as a synecdoche, a technique where a part of something (like the place where a person sits) is used to mean the whole of something (like the girl's house).

Lines 5-6

And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

  • We guess that these two didn't really have much contact after that encounter—at least for some time.
  • They "went on living," which suggests that time passed as they pursued their separate lives in a village. 
  • (Geography note: Here the village is called Chokan, but this is a version of the Japanese name for the town of Ch'ang-kan, a suburb of Nanking. The town names are the result of Pound looking at Japanese translations of the original Chinese poem.)
  • The wife refers to herself and to her now-husband as "two small people," as though they didn't think of themselves as children at the time but, rather, maturing adults.
  • Still, they're not to adulthood quite yet. They're innocent in that they don't go about hating on people.

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