Study Guide

The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter Themes

  • Love

    In "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter," we observe the wife remembering how she first fell in love with her husband, and how that love has survived his five-month absence. Even though we only get the wife's side of the story, we have no reason to assume that the love is not mutual. Still, for the wife, her love doesn't seem to have been immediate. Instead, she seems to have grown into loving her husband. She may have even resisted her role as wife at first. But who can blame her? She was fourteen! In the end, though, things are all candy and flowers, as the poem delivers a wallop of a love letter to her absent fella.

    Questions About Love

    1. Did the wife always love her husband? If she didn't always love him, when did she begin to? 
    2. How has love changed the life of the wife?
    3. How is love represented in the wife's descriptions of nature?

    Chew on This

    This poem says that love is not something that happens at first sight. It takes time to develop (like, a year of what sure sounds like an arranged marriage).

    Boredom and isolation are as much a part of the speaker's expression of love for her husband as her affections for him are. (Sorry, guy.)

  • Isolation

    In "The River Merchant's Wife," it's appropriate that this monologue/letter is written in isolation. There are no other people around that we know of, and monkeys and moss just don't count as companions (at least, that's what they told us at our junior high prom). It's almost as if the natural world and landscape have completed the task of isolating the wife that her husband's departure began. Her isolation seems so complete, in fact, that it seems integral to the observations that she shares in the poem.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. How and by what is the speaker isolated in the first stanza?
    2. How is this isolation transformed as she grows older?
    3. Does the wife's isolation make her less credible? (In other words, do you really think she'd love her husband this way if he was around, leaving the toilet seat up?) Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The speaker is isolated on account of her own bashfulness and innocence in the first stanza, but marriage—however uncomfortable at first—helps her to overcome this. Good for her!

    The isolation that the woman feels has its roots in her rural childhood upbringing. (It's not your fault, hubby!)

  • Women and Femininity

    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

    1. 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?
    2. Where does the speaker resist being forced into the role of a submissive female?
    3. Does the speaker ever succumb to the submissive role of obedient wife, or is it simply genuine love?
    4. 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.

  • Memory and The Past

    Half of "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" takes place in the past. The speaker is recalling certain memories about her own experience with marriage in order to express her love for her husband in the fullest sense. As is true in a marriage, not all of her memories are positive. She recalls an awkward meeting, a tough first year of marriage, and then her eventual comfort in marriage. As a whole, though, the past is something that's cherished by the speaker, despite the ups and downs. It's also worth noting that the poem itself is a memory, translated and modified from an eighth-century poem. It's as though Pound were reaching into the Wayback Machine to find something new and relevant for poetry.

    Questions About Memory and The Past

    1. Why would the wife bring up negative memories like the ones in the second stanza?
    2. What's the common connection between the couple's childhoods and their current separation?
    3. What are the limits of her memory and the past for the wife in the final stanza?
    4. How much of her present situation influences the speaker's view of the past?

    Chew on This

    The inclusion of negative memories evokes the transformative aspect of the couple's love, in that the husband had to earn the love of the wife. And now she's happy he did!

    Memories-shmemories. The speaker uses the past strictly for comfort. By remembering her time with her husband, she forgets his present absence.