Study Guide

The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter Analysis

By Ezra Pound

  • Sound Check

    In terms of the strategy at work in crafting the sound of this poem, it's easier to talk about tone than it is to talk about specific techniques. If you really twisted our arm, we could point out that there seems to be a lot of consonance at work here, and it seems to be stanza specific. For example, there are a lot of S sounds in the first stanza, followed by L sounds in the second, D's and F's in the third, S's and M's in the fourth, and then back to more S's in the fifth.

    So, what's that mean? Well, possibly nothing at all. If we go back and look at the poem as a whole, we do notice a dominance of the S sound in general, which might be intentional on the part of Pound in order to suggest the shape of the river described here, the sound of the water, or the sighs of the wind. At any rate, the use of sound—if we do want to claim that it's intentional— is really in the service of the poem's emotional impact on the reader, which is why we come back to tone.

    As a letter, this poem presumes familiarity (from a wife to her husband). So a casual tone predominates, with the childhood reminiscing taking place in long, unhurried lines that might suggest the way a couple would converse about random stuff, with no urgency to their conversation. Too, that casual, languid tone sets us up as readers for a sharp turn at the end of the poem, as it plunges right into the power-packing lines of 25 and 26. Those lines stand out because a) they are the most direct in terms of the speaker's emotional reporting, b) they represent a break from the longer lines that have come before, and c) when read out loud, they sound like they deserve special consideration from the reader for being so radically different.

    To put it in the poem's terms, the sound of this poem is like floating on a slow, lazy river, then hitting some unexpected rapids. The impact is immediate, and the emotion is visceral. The poem's entire focus is to render the emotional state of its speaker, and that's something that comes across even in its sonic design. Pound, you magnificent maniac, you've done it again!

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title tells us who the speaker is ("The River Merchant's Wife") and what form the poem will take ("A Letter"). We're pretty clear about the first part, but this poem really isn't a letter, is it? It's more of a dramatic monologue, because you wouldn't normally write in this way to someone you know, no matter how flowery your style of language tends to be. The "letter" is full of descriptions that are highly stylistic and, well, poetic. It's a poem, not a historical document of communication between two Chinese people.

    Another way of looking at the title is as a stage direction in the text of a play. Just imagine the description of a scene: "Enter stage right: a river-merchant's wife. Reading a letter." This fits into the monologue aspect of the poem. We don't get much else other than the action taking place.

    Also, notice how, in the title, the speaker's identity is reduced to her relationship to her husband. She is his wife. We don't get her name, or really anything else about her. For that matter, though, the husband himself is reduced down to his profession: a river merchant. The title turns the characters of the poem into "flat," or two-dimensional, figures. In that way, the title lets us know that the focus on the poem really won't be on these two as characters. (And, true to form, the poem is really focused on the emotional experience of being separated from a loved one.)

    By setting up the identity and profession of the husband and establishing that the wife is writing a letter to said husband, the poem is then free to focus on the details of loneliness. Thanks to this very straightforward title, the poem is able to dispense with the characters' backstories and go straight for the meat of their emotional experiences. That, plus sad monkeys. We mustn't forget them.

  • Setting

    We talk a lot about the setting in the "Detailed Summary" and the "Symbols" sections, so by all means check those out if you haven't already. For our purposes here, we'd just again underscore the importance of the natural environment to this rural scene, as well as the way it both affects, and is seemingly affected by, the couple in the poem.

    The big picture of this poem is that the husband has left the wife, gone "into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies" (19). In this sense, we're dealing with a split setting—Ku-to-en, where the husband is, and his home village, where the speaker has stayed behind. And what connects these scenes? Rivers. The husband has gone to one river, but the poem concludes with the wife wondering if he'll return via "the narrows of the river Kiang" (27). So, the same mechanism that has pulled them apart is also the way that they'll likely be reunited.

    We bring this up because the push-pull that the rivers represent for the husband and wife in the poem (pulling them apart, but potentially pushing them back together) gives us a good way to think about how the setting affects, and is affected by, the wife, our speaker. In the first stanza, we get happy childhood. This is communicated in part within a natural setting that is controlled by the children: flowers are pulled, bamboo is used for stilts, heck—even plums are used for playing games.

    But this control over the environment seems to be totally undone in stanzas 4 and 5, in which monkeys make a sad racket, mosses grow over everything, and the air is filled with falling leaves and jerkface butterflies. In short, the setting is directly tied to the speaker's isolated mood. If this is so, then, it gives us pause to wonder whether these two setting descriptions (controlled when happy, uncontrolled when sad) are coincidental to her mood, or whether the speaker might herself influence her surroundings (or at least how she perceives her surroundings).

    That possibility is a slim one, we recognize (unless she's Storm from the X-Men, which would be way cool), but it gets at the main point to make about the role of the setting in "The River Merchant's Wife": the natural environment cannot be separated from the emotional reality of the speaker's experience. If you want to know how the speaker is feeling, just check the state of her surroundings.

  • Speaker

    Upon first glance, the speaker seems to merely be a dedicated wife. However, if we look a little closer, we find the details and nuances of her personality. We discover that she's a sensitive person who has emotional needs like everyone else on this planet. Her life now seems solitary, but then again, this isolation recalls her childhood, with long hours spent picking flowers (with no one to give them to) out by the gates of her family home. As she writes her letter (the poem), she faces even longer hours, waiting for her husband to return from his trip.

    Of course, she never comes out and tells us any of this. We can only sense the mood of the speaker indirectly from her poetic, and detailed, descriptions. How do we guess that she might not have been happy about her marriage at first? Well, she "lower[ed] [her] head" and "looked at the wall" (9). And how do we know that she's unhappy now? One sign: "The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead" (18). Finally, how much does our speaker miss her husband? She would "come out to meet [him] / As far as Cho-fu-Sa," (29-30) hundreds of miles away.

    We don't think that this speaker is just being shy here. We think that she's actually modeling a poetic philosophy that was championed by one of Ezra Pound's contemporaries, another poet named William Carlos Williams. He said, famously, "No ideas but in things," which is a loftier way of putting another common maxim for all successful writing: show, don't tell. In both cases (though Williams had other, more complex notions in mind, too), these mottos emphasize the importance of specific detail in conveying ideas to a reader. In other words, don't just say that someone is beautiful. Give us the deets, man! Hair color, eye color, fashion sense—the devil of good writing is always, always in the details.

    And the speaker seems to really get this. In a poem that was written by a poet who was very conscious of pushing the envelope in poetry writing, our speaker is a model writer in her own right!

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    "The River-Merchant's Wife" is a straightforward poem, especially as far as Pound is concerned. (Man, you should read some of his later stuff!) The allusions to different places aren't that important to the reader, as long as you know that the wife wants to travel hundreds of miles just so she can see her husband a few weeks sooner. The poem follows a logical series of events leading up to the current moment when the wife writes her letter, so just take it slow (like a lazy river) and let yourself sink into the feeling.

  • Calling Card

    Chinese "Translations"

    As we mentioned in the "In a Nutshell" section, Ezra Pound used the notes of his friend's dead husband as the foundation for a whole collection of poems. These notes were based on the studies of Chinese and other translations that some Japanese scholars did. So Pound was getting a lot of his "Chinese" through different filters. Of course, translation isn't an exact science, so we'll cut Pound some slack. Also, Pound never screamed from the rooftops that these were authentic and accurate translations of an eighth-century poet named Li Po. Today, now that we're more enlightened to various cultural identities, we can recognize it wasn't totally Pound's work, but it wasn't plagiarism either. Let's just hope that poems like "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" send some of you future great scholars into your own explorations and appreciations of Chinese poetry.

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse

    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.

  • 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.
  • Butterflies

    When we think of love and butterflies, we imagine the bubbly feeling that you get in your tummy when you think of your loved one. In this poem? Not so much. Here, butterflies represent for the speaker the absence of her husband. Like the falling leaves and the coming autumn, they are another symbol of love absence and loneliness.

    • Line 23: Two things here. 1) The butterflies are paired, unlike some speakers I can mention. Like some overly affectionate couple, these paired-up butterflies only serve to remind her of her husband's absence. And 2) These guys are yellow. Now, ordinarily, that would be a pretty, happy color for a butterfly to be. When they appear with "The leaves [that] fall early this autumn," though, the image they project is very reminiscent of those same dead, falling, yellow leaves. In both cases, these bugs… bug our speaker and serve to remind her (and us) of the barren state of her emotional void.
    • Line 24: Where are these butterflies anyway? Oh, right, in the "West" garden. Know what else happens in the West? The sun sets there, which is a common symbol of decline, of things ending (like this couple's togetherness).
    • Line 25: In a line that's striking for being so short and direct, the speaker reveals that the butterflies hurt here, for all of the symbolic reasons we've detailed above (and not because they've suddenly grown stingers or anything).
  • Environment and Geography

    Like monkeys? Like maps? You're in luck: "The River-Merchant's Wife" has both! The poem also name-drops. Because Pound was working off somebody else's notes, he uses the Japanese names of actual Chinese landmarks. The various references to real places represent China as a whole to Pound's contemporary readers. By representing China as a lush garden filled with exotic animals and obedient wives, the readers of the past might not have had the same impressions that readers today will. Hopefully you can better understand that China is a complex nation with a wide variety of people and landscapes.

    • Lines 2-4: Flowers, plums, bamboo: these are elements of the children's play, and reflect their (initially) happy connection to their natural environment.
    • Line 16: Pound turns a river, Ku-to-en, into the name of a region. This changes the geographical landscape from a background into a dwelling place.
    • Line 18: Here, the speaker writes as though the monkeys understand, and share in, her sorrow. The speaker's mood is reflected in (or does it affect?) the natural environment in which she lives.
    • Lines 20-21: Nature has almost overgrown the garden (a.k.a. controlled nature). The unruly mosses symbolize the sorrow that threatens to overtake the speaker.
    • Line 22: The falling leaves are symbolic of decline, and represent the end of summer. The time of warmth has come to an end, both in terms of the weather and the speaker's relationship.
    • Lines 29-30: This reference to a real place is tricky, because most Western readers won't realize just how far the wife is willing to travel out to meet her husband. Hint: it's hundreds of miles!
  • Steaminess Rating

    PG

    This poem wants to be a sexy poem, but it just isn't going to happen. There's a lot of longing, but the shyness of the wife in the beginning means we don't get to hear any of the good stuff. The sexiest part is when the wife says she wants to have her dust mingle with her husband's. Hot stuff, right? However, this isn't to ignore that this poem is a romantic and beautiful portrayal of love in a long-distance relationship.