Ronald Bush: On "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter"

About the poem that Pound called "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter," Fenollosa's Professor Mori remarked that it beautifully presents the wife's unspoken feeling "not logical or straight but trailing here and there." Few of us, I think, would disagree. Which only makes more interesting the fact that Pound, maintaining the beautiful indirection of the poem, transformed its subject. As a Sinologist has recently pointed out, the river merchant of the poem would have been understood by Li Po's contemporary readers as the poet himself, and the poem read as "a love-poem to his wife but written as if from her to him, which was a common Chinese practice at the time." The implied emotional drama of the poem, therefore, is one of love maturing before our eyes. The wife remembers herself as a little girl, recalls a time when she entered into an arranged marriage without much feeling, and then, spurred by the pain her husband's departure has provoked, slowly realizes how much she cares for him. Li Po's poem swells to maximum feeing twice. At its center, moved by the river merchant's prolonged absence, the wife recalls her fifteenth year, when she realized what love was and first desired her "dust to be mingled with" his, "forever and forever and forever." Then at the end of the poem she dreams of his returning and achieves a poignant reunion by traveling a considerable distance in her imagination to meet him halfway.

In Pound's hands, this poem becomes a dark reflection of its Chinese self and a recognizable cousin to the poems of blocked expression in the suite around it. Recalling Mori's remark that the wife belatedly discovers her own 'ignorance' after her husband leaves home, Pound tuned his ear to a line near the beginning of the poem in which the wife recognizes that she and her lord were once "Two small people, without dislike or suspicion"—a line that unmistakably announces those feelings have arrived. The emotional curve Pound conveys is accordingly more complicated and more problematic than Li Po's. In Pound's poem, to affirm her love for her husband (that is, to deliver her letter), the wife must overcome not only the miles between them but also her own fugitive feelings of betrayal. Consequently, near the beginning of her monologue we detect nostalgia not only for the time when she first met her husband, but for an innocence before and beyond that, for a time when she was a child and her hair was "still cut straight across [her] forehead." The word "still" here is Pound's invention and not Li Po's. In Fenollosa's notes, as in his Chinese original, the line reads: when her hair was "first" cut across her forehead, and speaks of a cheerful memory of the beginning of youth. In Pound's version it implies a world of disappointment in what has followed.

In "The River-Merchant's Wife," moreover, this is only the first hint of suppressed ambivalence. Another involves the wife's worries about the route her husband must take on this journey home. In Fenollosa, the wife thinks of him passing through a notoriously dangerous group of river narrows. In "The River-Merchant's Wife," the same narrows become more figure than fact. Beyond worrying about her husband's return, Pound's wife reveals reservations about whether her domestic happiness will ever be restored, and she telescopes the river narrows with the dark passages of her heart. In her unfolding vision, the merchant passes through a "river of swirling eddies" of her own conflicted feelings to a region where monkeys echo her own sorrow, only to then negotiate his return through the "narrows" of her suspicion. At that point, though, the completed fellow feeling figured by his return seems as unlikely as the possibility in "South-Folk in Cold Country" that China might acknowledge a fallen hero. Li Po's poem had ended with the wife crying out that she does not care about the great distance, she will travel to meet him to far Cho-fu-sa. But Pound deliberately alters what he found in Fenollosa and allows his syntax to overpower a geography none of his readers would be likely to guess. Fenollosa had translated the poem's last lines "For I will go out to meet [you], not caring that the way be far. / And will directly come to Chofusa." Pound, shifting the feeling, has his wife aver that if her husband lets her know beforehand, she will come out to meet him "as far as Cho-Fu-Sa," with the implication (it is the culmination of her ambivalence) that she will come so far and no farther.

From "Pound and Li Po: What Becomes a Man." in Ezra Pound Among the Poets. Ed. George Bornstein. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Copyright © 1985 by The University of Chicago press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Ronald Bush: On "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Ronald Bush Criticism Target Ezra Pound
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 06 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Ezra Pound Among the Poets
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