The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter Summary
A lonely housewife hasn't seen her husband for five months, so she decides to write him a letter. In the letter, she recalls her first memory of their meeting. Then she recalls how she acted after they first got married—at the tender age of fourteen. Eesh. Then, when she was fifteen, the wife started to feel more settled in the marriage. But when she was sixteen, her husband had to go to work. While the husband travels and sells his goods, the wife tells him (through this letter) all the beautiful things he's missing and how she can't wait for him to get home.
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.
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).
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.
At fourteen I married My Lord you,
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
- At age fourteen, they get married! (That might sound wild to us, but remember that this letter is coming from a different time and place.)
- According to the wife, her husband is her lord—or, more importantly, her "Lord."
- The capitalization of "Lord" suggests that the husband fits into the role of the noble (a medieval term for boss), and the wife is then the vassal (a medieval word for a loyal supporter of a lesser status).
- Again: shock! But, for all you gals out there, remember that women didn't even have the right to vote in 1915.
- So this fourteen-year-old child-bride is all shy and passive. She doesn't even look her husband (or anyone else for that matter) in the eye.
- Yes, even when people called to her, she never looked up from the ground or the wall.
- Now, what do you make of this passivity? Is she showing ultimate respect? Is she just being super-duper-shy? Another way of looking at this stanza is to see it as evidence of how she resisted the marriage: namely, by ignoring her new husband. So, maybe things didn't start out happily ever after. Let's see how they turned out…
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
- Now that the couple has been married a year, the speaker has become a little more comfortable with this whole marriage business.
- She stopped scowling, which is like angry frowning. Given this point, we can go back to stanza 2 and re-evaluate. Maybe she really was ignoring her husband because she was unhappy to be married to him.
- Now, though, she's so comfortable that she proclaims her love for her husband in a pretty dramatic way.
- Think of the mingling dust as a figurative way to describe the wife's commitment to her husband.
- Like a lot of figurative language, the exact meaning here is open to interpretation. It can be taken as literal: that, when they die and are cremated, their remains be mixed together so they stay together after death ("Forever and forever, and forever").
- The second is more of a metaphor: that the two bodies, made of the stuff of the earth, should become intertwined through sex. And, like all great promises of romantic love, this one will go on without end!
- Then the tone starts to shift towards what the speaker is really getting at…
- She asks her husband why she should climb to a "look out" (a.k.a. a high point to see people coming from far away) to wait for him to return.
- But don't read this question at face value. Maybe she asks this because she's trying to emphasize how this year of their relationship wasn't complicated by the problems that all long-distance relationships have. She didn't have to climb the look out, because her husband was always around. Aww.
At sixteen you departed
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
- So, apparently, just a year later, the husband left and went to another village.
- (Geography note: Ku-to-en is actually the name of a river, even though Pound pretends that it's a place or a region. Ku-to-en is also known as Kaing in Japanese and Ch'üt'ang in Chinese.)
- We don't know much about this place, other than that it's far away, by a swirling river ("eddies" are just currents of water, typically moving in circles).
- The husband has been gone for five months now, so we can assume that our speaker is lonely. Interestingly, though, she doesn't tell us that herself. We get that sense in the reflected mood of the sad monkeys. Helpful! But sad.
- It's as though the husband's absence has affected her entire environment.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.