Ming Xie: On "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter"

The "simplicity" and beauty of this poem (both the original Chinese poem and Pound's version of it) consist chiefly in the convincing speaking voice of the persona, yet full of emotional maturity and sophistication.

A.R. Orage believed that Pound's "The Seafarer" is "a little less perfect; it has not the pure simplicity of its Chinese exemplars. On the other hand, it is as we should expect, a little more manly in its sentiment." Orage also noted the similarity between Browning's "Bishop Bloughram's Apology" and Pound's "The River-Merchant's Wife" in terms of their "natural" simplicity: "The difference is that Browning was 'perfecting' the expression of a powerful and subtle mind, while Rihaku was perfecting the mind relatively of a child. The extension of the directness and simplicity, the veracity and the actuality aimed at by vers librists, into subtler regions than the commonplace is advisable if they are not to keep in the nursery of art." Perhaps deliberately, Pound has brought over and constructed the image of a tender, ordinary, yet emotionally sophisticated and mature woman in his rendition of "The River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter":

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead

  I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.

You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,

You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

And we went on living in the village of Chokan:

Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.


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 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?


At sixteen you departed,

You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies, 

And you have been gone five months.

The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.


In Pound's version the emotion of the woman speaker is presented within her confined perspective through particular stages of emotional development and psychological retrospection, out of which emerge different shades of meaning and significance. Pound divides the poem into different stanzas or strophes, in order to delineate more sharply and contrastively the successive stages of retrospection and revelation. In the Chinese poem, due to lack of specified relations of tense or number, the narrative sequence is not explicitly established by syntactical markers. It is therefore all the more difficult for the English translator to grasp the intimations of feeling and attitude in the original and to devise an effective inner logic of psychological development.

Thus the English translator is called upon to utilize whatever resources in English he or she can muster, in order to present a convincing structure of feeling and sensibility in a new English poem. As Pound himself puts it, the important thing is to recognize that "the 'indestructible' part or core of the poem is to be sought in the emotion energized in and by the words." The word "still" in Pound's first line, for instance, is absent from both the original Chinese poem and Fenollosa's transcriptions, where it is given as "mistress-hair-first-cover-brow" and explained as "Chinese lady's I or my beginning / My hair was at first covering my brows. / (Chinese method of wearing hair). Pound's "still" thus introduces into the narrative a prefigured sense of lost innocence, nostalgic pleasure, and subsequent frustration from the point of view of the woman speaker before she married her present "Lord." Her girlish confidence in perpetual romance is implicit in "Forever and forever and forever" (this is, in fact, Pound's addition), because the ironies inherent in life had by that stage not yet made their first appearance: at the start of the poem the reader is asked to recognize that he, as a reader, knows more of what is to come than she does ("still"). A sense of retrospective ambivalence and nostalgia is thereby subtly implied. Waley's rendition of this poem also stresses, though in a less self-conscious way, the implicit connection of the past state of innocence, through subsequent stages of psychological development, with the woman's present predicament and state of mind. Lowell's version (entitled "Ch'ang Kan") can be regarded as a dramatic monologue rather than a dramatic lyric. The difference between the two modes would be that in the latter the speaker's emotion and attitude would be generated from within the narrative and the perspective provided, while in the former a more external, outside-looking-in approach is adopted:

When the hair of your Unworthy One first began to cover her 


She picked flowers and played in front of the door.

Then you, my Lover, came riding a bamboo horse.

We ran round and round the bed, and tossed about the sweetmeats of 

    green plums.

We both lived in the village of Ch'ang Kan.

We were both very young, and knew neither jealousy nor suspicion.

At fourteen, I became the wife of my Lord.

I could not yet lay aside my face of shame;

I hung my head, facing the dark wall;

You might call me a thousand times, not once would I turn round. 

At fifteen, I stopped frowning.

I wanted to be with you, as dust with its ashes.

I often thought that you were the faithful man who clung to the 


That I should never be obliged to ascend to the Looking-for-Husband 


When I was sixteen, my Lord went far away,

To the Ch'ü T'ang Chasm and the Whirling Water Rock of the Yü 


Which, during the Fifth Month, must not be collided with; 

Where the wailing of the gibbons seems to come from the sky.


For example, Lowell uses the third-person pronoun "she" and "her" in the first two lines--an indirect form of address that lacks the necessary inner resonance of the speaker, especially since Lowell's third line shifts to the first-person address. These third-person forms no doubt indicate that Lowell wants to invoke the facile Western stereotypes for self-effacing oriental modesty by making the woman-speaker ironically refer to herself in the third person. "Then you, my Lover..." in the third line is probably a clumsy attempt at irony ("my Romeo," and so on). Similarly in the seventh line: "At fourteen, I became the wife of my Lord." But Pound in his version ingeniously combines the two words offered by Fenollosa ("Fourteen-- became-- lord's/your--wife: At fourteen I became your wife"), to produce the right tone of address in the sentence, "At fourteen I married My Lord you."

If in the first part of the "River-Merchant's Wife" he more or less follows Fenollosa's original phrasings, Pound departs significantly from them in the second half in terms of rhythm and speech representation as necessitated by his own adopted strategy of translating the poem into a dramatic lyric:

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 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.

This is a strikingly direct presentation of emotional nakedness of the woman speaker, dramatizing as it does the subtleties of love, sorrow, and ambivalence by closely following the inner speech rhythm of the speaker herself. Pound's "The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind," modifying Fenollosa's notes but still retaining the essentials, wonderfully recreates the emotional implication of the Chinese line as a whole. It is comparable to Hardy's closing lines in "The Voice" (1912). In Pound's "River-Merchant's Wife," there is a complex psychological interaction between the tone of playful, childish innocence, carefree and ironically insouciant ("I never looked back"), and the sorrowful gravity of a young wife suddenly made older by the loneliness and anxiety of separation. Because the young wife in Li Po's poem is unpracticed in grief, she feels all the more sharply what are in fact all the traditional signs of her desertion and solitariness: the moss, the paired butterflies, and the autumn leaves failing in wind. Freshly to her, they hurt. To put the full stop after me, and then state "I grow older," is a display of great control and objectivity on the part of Pound the translating poet. The young woman feels that she is growing older, aging by having to bear this hurt so early in life by an abrupt gap in the onflow of her short-lived happiness. The ending (represented by the full stop) of her happiness makes her realize that life's bitterness and wantonness have started and await her in the future: "They hurt me. I grow older." She is too demure to complain openly, and Pound, through his tacit understanding, remains rather too discreet to hint at this, since she seems to have no reason to reproach her husband who as a merchant has to rely on his travel for their survival, so that his is not a tacit abandonment.

In Pound's version, this acute sense of time and change is again captured in the word "already" of the following line: "The paired butterflies are already yellow with August," where Waley has "And leaves are falling in the early autumn wind," and Lowell's "The leaves are falling, it is early for the Autumn wind to blow" seems unnecessarily flat. In Pound's version, the woman has begun to notice for the first time the change of the seasons and to recognize the painful images of their transience and mutability. And then she reminds herself that what makes leaves fall, early or not, is not grief or anxiety but wind ("The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind": "in wind" is poignantly isolated by a comma), so that the source of her present predicament is a natural cause for a natural phenomenon. Yet there is an even more sombre underlying suggestion that grief itself may be "natural," part of the "natural" course of things, the autumn season coming earlier or later, inciting "natural" human emotion but beyond human control.

"The River Song" is made up of two poems by Li Po, the title of the second poem being versified and submerged in Pound's version. The dramatic irony in the new context of Pound's version emerges from the persona's unique position and perspective, the ironic contrast between the two parts of the poem being generated from within the poem through the speaker's individualized response to a succession of images underscored by the very sequence of narration and reflection:

He returns by way of Sei rock, to hear the new nightingales,

For the gardens at Jo-run are full of new nightingales, 

Their sound is mixed in this flute,

Their voice is in the twelve pipes here.


Here, the word "this" in "this flute" echoes the first word in Pound's version: "This boat is of shato-wood . . . " thus binding the whole poem together across the diverse parts and aspects of the two Chinese poems thus conflated. The specified reference to the dramatic-lyrical persona clinches the whole poem's meaning with an intensely dramatic disclosure. In Pound's new poem, if we take it that the poem's speaker is a poet, out carousing on a splendid and expensive boat and entertained with flute and pipes, remembering how he had lingered in the Emperor's garden "awaiting an order-to-write" ("And I have moped in the Emperor's garden . . . " and then the memory changed into the past tense), we can indeed take the section starting "The eastern wind" to be the poem which he writes or recalls, leading back into the garden where he awaited his order and the sound of those remembered nightingales "rhyming" with the flute and pipes on the boat here ("This boat . . . " "the twelve pipes here"). If so, the conflation of the two poems would indeed be deliberate, because in Pound's new poem the first contains as it were the setting for the writing of the second and also contains its author. In this respect, the poem is more akin to what Pound defines as the "Noh" image rather than being merely Browningesque monologue. But in one respect, the "moping poet" of Pound's version can be seen as a piece of Browningesque irony, in that the court-poet, waiting for the imperial nomination of a theme for composition, heard the nightingales' singing as "aimless" because he was not free to respond to it or even to take notice of it . . . .

From Cathay: Translation and Imagism. New York: Garland, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Garland.


Title Ming Xie: On "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Ezra Pound Criticism Target Ezra Pound
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 06 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Ezra Pound and the Appropriation of Chinese Poetry: Cathay, Translation, and Imagism
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