J. Paul Hunter: On "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter"

The "letter" tells us only a few facts about the nameless merchant's wife: that she is about sixteen and a half years old, that she married at fourteen and fell in love with her husband a year later, that she is now very lonely. And about their relationship we know only that they were childhood playmates in a small Chinese village, that their marriage originally was not a matter of personal choice, and that the husband unwillingly went away on a long journey five months ago. But the words tell us a great deal about how the young wife feels, and the simplicity of her language suggests her sincere and deep longing. The daily noises she hears seem "sorrowful" (line 18), and she worries about the dangers of the far-away place where her husband is, thinking of it in terms of its perilous "river of swirling eddies" ( line 16). She thinks of how moss has grown up over the unused gate, and more time seems to her to have passed than actually has (lines 22-25). She remembers nostalgically their innocent childhood, when they played together without deeper love or commitment (lines 1-6), and contrasts that with her later satisfaction in their love (lines 11-4) and with her present anxiety, loneliness, and desire. We do not need to know the details of the geography of the river Kiang or how far Cho-fu-Sa is to sense that her wish to see him is very strong, that her desire is powerful enough to make her venture beyond the ordinary geographical bounds of her existence so that their reunion will come sooner. The closest she comes to a direct statement about her love is her statement that she desired that her dust be mingled with his "For ever and for ever and for ever" (lines 12-13). But her single-minded vision of the world, her perception of even the beauty of nature as only a record of her husband's absence and the passage of time, and her plain, apparently uncalculated language about her rejection of other suitors and her shutting out of the rest of the world all show her to be committed, desirous, nearly desperate for his presence. In a different sense, she has also counted the ways that she loves her man.

From The Norton Introduction to Poetry. Copyright © 1986, 1981, 1973 by W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.


Title J. Paul Hunter: On "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author J. Paul Hunter Criticism Target Ezra Pound
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Norton Introduction to Poetry
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