Time, Age, and the Seasons
"The River-Merchant's Wife" traces the course of the speaker's growth from childhood to adulthood in a matter of years. To drive home the emotional development of our speaker in that time, the poem makes use of time-related imagery along the way. Much of this is connected with the transition from spring to autumn as a metaphor for the shift from abundance (abundance of love, in the case of this poem) to a lack thereof. It's telling that the speaker doesn't need to report much of anything about her emotional state. (Maybe she's just really shy.) We don't need her to, though! Instead, we get a very clear picture of her situation from the technique of the poem itself.
- Line 1: The word "still" should tip you off that her hair isn't cut straight across anymore. The hairstyle is a symbol of the speaker's childhood state.
- Line 6: "Small people"? Why not kids? It seems that the concept of time is being compressed here. These are literally children, but they are looked at as mini-adults from an older perspective.
- Lines 12-13: Mingling "dust" could be a metaphor for the sexual union of their bodies. Since this is a loose translation by people who didn't know Chinese, though, it could also be a literal reference to the ashes left after cremation. Even after death, the speaker could be imagining that she'll be with her husband "Forever and forever, and forever." (See how Pound's "translations" could be different from the original and we'd never know it?)
- Line 21-22: The mosses growing thick represent a metaphor for how much time has passed since the speaker has seen her man.
- Lines 22-24: Autumn is coming early. The early arrival of this season announces the impending chill of winter. It also indicates the presence of decay, as yellow leaves fall from the trees. Finally, we're put in mind of the sunset, which would be taking place in the "West garden." All of these markers of time remind us of the end of bright, sunny days, and highlight the speaker's isolation.