Ezra Pound: Poems

Ezra Pound: Poems Summary and Analysis of "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" (1917)


This poem takes the form of a letter from a lonely wife who has not seen her husband in five months. She begins by reminiscing about meeting him during childhood. She was pulling flowers at the front gate and he came by on stilts, playing horse. The next two lines, "And we went on living in the village of Chokan/Two small people, without dislike or suspicion," imply that the pair did not grow close right away following that encounter; they continued to grow up separately.

In the next stanza, the wife describes marrying her husband at age fourteen. After that, she was continuously shy, either out of respect, sub-ordinance, or just because of her introverted personality. According to the next stanza, she became more comfortable with the marriage by age fifteen and "stopped scowling." A year later, her husband (a merchant) departed for another village, which is where he has been for the past five months. The monkeys' sorrowful noise mirrors her loneliness. She writes that her husband "dragged [his] feet" when he left - indicating that he did not want to leave her. She ends her letter by writing that if he comes back along the river, he should send word ahead, and she will come out to meet him. The poem is signed "by Rihaku."


Pound was not the creator of this poem; he translated it from the original Chinese version by Li Po. The Chinese original likely had a specific form and identifiable meter, but Pound did not know enough about Chinese poetry to preserve it in his translation. Pound wrote his translation in free verse, structured around the chronological life events of the river-merchant and his wife. This form, though perhaps not Li Po's intent, does actually align with the content of this poem. The free verse makes the letter feel more authentic, as if it is a real letter from a wife to her husband. The lack of prescribed meter allows Pound to bring out the rawness of the wife's emotions, drawing readers directly into her loneliness without having to overcome the barrier of an overly structured presentation.

Lines 25 and 26 are two short lines that stand out because they appear in the midst of longer lines. Therefore, these two lines capture the reader's attention just as the poem reaches its climax, and the speaker, the wife, acknowledges the deep sorrow she feels because of her husband's absence. Poets often adjust form or meter in order to bring attention to a specific line. Even though this poem is free verse, those two lines are markedly different from the rest, which allows Pound to emphasize their content.

Because this poem follows the sequence of the characters' lives, it is thematically appropriate that Pound uses time-based imagery and figurative language as well. The setting of the poem shifts from spring to autumn. Spring usually represents abundance and new growth, and this is when the couple's love is in bloom. Meanwhile, in the autumn, growth and greenery slowly wither away, leaves fall, and the air grows colder. The husband is away and his wife longs for his return. The wife notes that the moss has grown thicker as well, which is another metaphor for the passage of time. As she grows older, the changing seasons represent her emotional development over time.

Rivers are also an important symbol in this poem. Rivers constantly flow and change, just as the relationship between the wife and her husband has evolved. A river forms the physical barrier between them, as the husband traveled along it to another village. At the end of the poem, the wife wonders whether or not another river will bring them back together.

In addition, the setting of this poem is a rare glimpse into a portion of China's landscape. in Pound's time, westerners had very little contact with this eastern land. Pound's translation of Chinese poetry probably caused a lot of discussion; it is doubtful that many of his contemporaries believed China to be the lush paradise he describes in this poem.