The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter
So, "The River-Merchant's Wife" never became a feminist poem. The portrayal of this woman was originally written by a man, Li Po, and it was then translated by men, like Ezra Pound. As a result, the wife falls into a female stereotype—she is naïve, bashful, stubborn, loyal to her husband, and subordinate to her husband. You get the point: Joan of Arc, she ain't.
Still, that's no reason to pooh-pooh this poem, all you pooh-pooh'ers out there! There's plenty of drama and stylized narrative to make the poem worthy of our attention. As the wife grows older, she comes to not only accept, but to fully embrace her husband to the point where she feels that the minutes are slipping away while he's gone. The wife is truly an articulate and intelligent woman with a great eye for picking out the metaphors around her. There's nothing un-feminist about the love between two people who yearn to be back in each other's arms, and we should try and recognize the complexity of the woman's relationship to her husband while being sensitive to eighth-century marriage customs.
Questions About Women and Femininity
- Is this poem a sexist representation of a woman, or does it simply come from another time and culture that we shouldn't judge from our own current cultural biases?
- Where does the speaker resist being forced into the role of a submissive female?
- Does the speaker ever succumb to the submissive role of obedient wife, or is it simply genuine love?
- Do you think that the speaker might rely on her husband too much? Why or why not?
Chew on This
Everybody chill out. Although this poem does represent the woman in what we may see as a sexist and racist stereotype, we should recognize the rest of the poem's better qualities.
Never fret. The speaker only seems to succumb to the role of the submissive female when she calls her husband "My Lord." However, she then proceeds to reject the husband until they're on a more even social footing in the third stanza.