"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Poetry: The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter

I just came across this Ezra Pound poem for the first time, though apparently it’s somewhat well known.  I came across it in my reading of Imagist Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Bob Blaisdell.    Ezra Pound either has some really great poems or some really crappy ones.  This is a great poem. 

First, let me say that Pound translated a lot of classical Chinese poetry, but his translations are fine poems in themselves.  A lot of times, poetry loses something in translation.  I can’t vouch for how accurate this translation but it’s a wonderful poem in English.  This translation comes from a poet known as Li Po

Second, Pound was one of the founding members, and perhaps the most important, of the early 20th century poetic movement known as Imagism.  The key feature of imagism is that the poet creates an image to carry the meaning of his ideas, so that the emotion and abstract ideas are buried within the image.  Under ideal circumstances, nothing is explained, and what the reader is left to intuit is the meaning the image is suppose to project.  As you can see, this makes imagist poems difficult at times, but they can also be quite simple.  This particular poem by Pound is not particularly complicated.

Notice in the very first line how the image of bangs suggests a certain innocence and childlike inexperience.  Notice in the second stanza how the image of the bashful lowering of her head suggests a young woman’s submissiveness to a more powerful husband.  The third stanza’s image of dust mingling with dust shows the evolving love toward what at first must have been an unequal power allocation in the marriage.  In the final stanza, notice how the varying images weaved together suggest a complex emotional state in the young woman.

The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter
Translated from the Chinese of Li Po [Rihaku]
by Ezra Pound

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 lookout?

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.
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.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
               As far as Cho-fo-Sa.

Isn’t that a lovely poem?  The one place where Pound doesn’t use images is right at the core of that last stanza, lines 24 and 25: “They hurt me/I grow older.”  All the images really substantiate those feelings.  The poem is about growing older, starting with girlish bangs and ending with her taking on the challenge and assertion of meeting her husband at the river.

This site, Modern American Poetry, has varying comments and exegesis on the poem.  I can’t vouch for each comment’s accuracy, but from what I skimmed it doesn’t seem far astray.


  1. I like it. Poetry isn't my first love, but I do like that one.

    1. I'm glad. I still remember you onced mentioned your difficulties with poetry, and I keep that in mind. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

  2. I also never quite understood poetry. Except Chaucer. I liked his Canterbury Tales.

    God bless.

    1. Oh Chaucer. I really need to return to Chaucer. I love him too.

  3. Hi again Manny! As you probably know I don't do much reading and as far as poems go, the only two that I can recall are these two below


    and as you and your readers know, "ME", "Myself" and "I" would never indirectly force any blogs to read them.

    I've been thinking Manny and you being an engineer and all, maybe "IT" is my soul, spirit and Guardian Angels who are UP SET and won't let me do much reading since our society last placed me in a two year occupation course as a teen age her, "I" mean teen because I was not bright enough. Whatever Manny! Please don't tell your readers cause truth be told, "I" would not change a moment for "The World" now.

    Now to get back on topic! Let's just say that what you wrote reminded me of when GOD (Good Old Dad) changed the name of Abrum to Abraham and so all that's right, "I" mean left for "ME", "ME" and "ME" to say is that if "I" was truly psychic, I might think that this poem is some kind of poetry LI PO suction for all of your readers brains cells, in Pounds that is! (lol)

    God Bless Peace

    1. Oh Victor...lol. The Sam McGee poem was enjoyable.

  4. Everyone loves that poem and by George, it was one of our son-in-law father's favorite and this man was the founders of our College in our city. God Bless his soul.

    I'll close by saying that as a matter of fact, I've been able to hold on to the beginning of that poem ever since my school years.

    Go Figure?

    Thank You Manny! :)

  5. “In a Station of the Metro” is a memorable one.

    1. Yes, that's the Pound poem everyone has read. Thanks.