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The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter

The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter


by Ezra Pound

Stanza 5 Summary

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

Lines 19-21

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!

  • The wife recalls that her husband dragged his feet when he left, which is a figurative way of implying that he didn't actually want to go.
  • The wife returns to the present tense ("now") and thinks back to the same gate. In the first stanza, she was pulling flowers there, but now that same area is overgrown with moss. 
  • It seems like she's lost her ability to prune this area of vegetation. Apparently, the mosses are really getting out of hand.

Lines 22-26

The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.

  • Here's where the poem starts to get really good, because we've broken out of the wife's narrative and get into the highly descriptive language of the setting.
  • The leaves are falling early this year. The decay of the autumn season (and the barren winter that it always precedes) is coming early this year. Like those sad little monkeys, this change in the weather seems to reflect the speaker's melancholy mood. 
  • Also, yellow butterflies float about like the leaves, which also grow yellow in August—right before they fall off the trees.
  • The butterflies are in pairs, unlike the wife, whose husband is missing.
  • These fluttery bugs are also hanging out "in the West garden," which may be significant. The West is where the sun sets, signaling the day's end (much like how the autumn is the signals the year's end). 
  • Just seeing those butterflies—and probably their reminders of isolation and decay—hurts the wife and makes her aware that she's aging.
  • Notice how a few short lines stand out against the rest of the poem's longer ones.
  • The short lines made up of single-syllable words draw significant attention to the emotional impact that the butterflies have on the speaker, in contrast to the emotional impact of fading memories.
  • We come away with an understanding how the butterflies are concrete images to the wife that really remind her of her own loss.

Lines 27-31

If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.
By Rihaku

  • Now we arrive at the wife's reason for writing this letter.
  • She lets her husband know that, if he's coming back via a certain route, he should send word ahead.
  • If he does send word of his homecoming, she will come out and meet him on the beach of Cho-fu-Sa.
  • (Another geography note: Cho-fu-Sa is actually hundreds and hundreds of miles away from the village they live in, so this is a big deal.)
  • The poem is then signed "By Rihaku," but scholars know that the name of the actual Chinese poet that Pound was translating is Li Po.
  • "Rihaku" is actually a fictional poet who's been given credit for the work of a number of poets who wrote in a similar manner.

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