On "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter"
EXPLANATION: "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter"
This opening stanza of 6 lines is organized around a central image of the
river-merchant and his wife as a child, confirmed by the first component of the central
image: the picture of a little girl with her hair cut in bangs. (The mark of an adult
woman in the ancient Chinese culture was elaborate arrangements of uncut long hair.)Each
line contributes to a clearer understanding of the central image of the children. The
repetition in three separate lines of the verb "playing" to describe the little
girl's activity at the front gate, as well as the little boy's presence on stilts and his
circling around where she sits, emphasizes the natural, contented activity of children
almost as a part of the natural world referred to here by "flowers" and
"blue plums." This stanza establishes the presence of the "I" and the
"you" in the world of the poem.
The second stanza places the girl and the boy, the "I" and the "you," as a woman and man in the adult world. In ancient cultures, and in some cultures today, early marriages are customary, and it is often also the custom for the wife to refer to her husband by a respectful title. In the case of this poem the formality of the title is softened by the direct address of "you" added right after it. Lines 8-9 establish the child-wife's shyness in this formal adult situation by offering a picture of her bent head and averted eyes, a shyness so extreme that she could not respond to her husband, no matter how many efforts he made.
The central image of this stanza is the growth of love between the young husband and wife. Her face, which in the first stanza has the bangs of childhood across her forehead, in the second stanza is averted and unsmiling, "stops scowling" in the third stanza. The vows of the marriage ceremony, "till death us do part," are evoked in lines 12 and 13 and poignantly reinforced by the triple repetition in line 13 of "forever." It is unclear whether "climb the lookout" in line 14 is a reference to a ritual performed in this culture by a wife after death, perhaps to look for other offers to marry that might come her way. If it is, it means that the wife as a widow does not want to do this. In any case, it is clear that there is nothing she wishes for after the death of her husband, so deep is her love for him now.
An image of separation is developed in these lines as the husband takes on his role as a river-merchant and travels the waters, conducting his work in the world on a distant island. The wife's statement of the length of his absence is expressed in one line, giving it full and emphatic force. And in line 18 the effect of this long absence is brought to full comprehension by the use of the natural image of the sounds of the monkeys that reflect back to her the sound of her own sorrow. The sounds that monkeys make are generally interpreted as chirping, happy sounds, but the weight of the wife's sorrow is so great that she can only hear the monkeys' noise as "sorrowful."
The first three lines of this final 11-line stanza are centered on the image of the river-merchant's absence. Line 19 indicates that he was as averse to this separation as she was. In line 20 the phrase "by the gate" (perhaps the same gate they played about as children), indicates that she has returned to this gate and in her memory sees him reluctantly leaving again. For her it is the scene of the beginning of his absence. And evidently she knows this scene well: not only is there moss growing there, but she is aware that there are different kinds of mosses, which she has not cleared away since his departure. They are now too deep to clear away.
In line 22 the sadness of the river-merchant's wife is again reflected back to her by the natural world, by the falling leaves and wind of autumn. This image becomes more defined with her observation of the butterflies in the garden, for they are "paired" as she is not, and they are becoming "yellow" changing with the season, growing older together. The butterflies "hurt" her because they emphasize the pain of her realization that she is growing older, but alone, not with her husband.
In these closing lines of the poem and the "letter" the river-merchant's wife reaches out from her lonely world of sorrow to her husband in a direct request: Please let me know when and by what route you are returning, so that I may come to meet you. This, however, conveys more than it would at first appear. Her village is a suburb of Nanking and she is willing to walk to a beach several hundred miles upstream from there to meet her husband, so deeply does she yearn to close the distance between them.
Source: Exploring Poetry, Gale. © Gale Group Inc. 2001. Online Source
The precise, Imagist technique of these poems, in Pound's rendition, can be seen in "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter." The speaker is a young wife, married at fourteen, who expresses, largely through images, the loneliness and isolation she feels in separation from her husband, absent on a five-month business trip, and her eagerness to be reunited with him. . . .
The effect of an intense, repressed emotion is conveyed through carefully selected images and minimal statement -- a method productive of the kind of poetry at which the Imagists were aiming: a precise, objective rendering.
From American Free Verse: The Modern Revolution in Poetry. Copyright © 1973 by Walter Sutton.
J. Paul Hunter
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.
This is one of the most delicate poems in Cathay, a verse "letter" in which the speaker communicates indirectly, by means of vivid images and shifting tones, the history of her feelings for the absent husband to whom she writes. First, she remembers their friendly play as children. In describing their feelings then as being "without dislike or suspicion," she implies that she did have those feelings at a later time, and they carry over into her description of her unhappiness in their first year of marriage. "At fifteen," she begins to love him, though her imagery and ceremonious language convey a certain reserve: to stop scowling is not to smile, and the image of their mingling dust looks past desire to death. Only in the last section, in which she remembers his departure and voices her present feelings, do we see how that timeless love has changed. In his absence, she has become conscious of time passing and of the preciousness of love in the natural world where nothing can last "forever." Now, his absence makes her miss him, and a language of natural imagery expresses, with eloquent reserve, her desire for his return.
From A Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Poems. Copyright © 1982, 1983 by Christine Froula.
Pound's Cathay: For the Most Part From the Chinese of Rihaku, From the Notes of the Late Ernest Fenollosa is, as Hugh Kenner has disclosed, "largely a war book."
. . . .
Speaking the war poem in Chinese, speaking it translated, was one way for Pound the noncombatant to speak the language of femininity in wartime without risk. As translator he could protect himself, exploring his civilian situation without exposing too much; as translator, he could also prevent the Cathay poems from in any way, however inadvertently, feeding the war machine. Even in late 1914, certainly in 1915, the gulf between England's "two nations" -- front and home -- was yawning, and soldiers' antiwar poetry was building that gap into its ideological and polemical structures. Choosing a third nation, the emblematically foreign China, Pound could write poems sympathetic to the values and experiences of those "left behind" without betraying the "frontier guard."
Read next to Owen's "The Letter" or "S. I. W.," Pound's "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" seems a discreet defense of the noncombatant, a validation of what she (and he) feels and knows. This poem about dedication to absence allowed Pound to affirm delicate feeling and an ethic of care and relation which extended beyond the brotherhood of combatants in wartime (qualities linked to the sensibilities of art); it allowed him to represent elegiac grief without gush, since the Chinese effect of the poem lies in large part in its tightly stressed reticence. Since the letter's strongest implication is of a deep, almost unspoken erotic and affectionate bond between the absent man and the waiting woman, a bond which seems to carry some kind of vital knowledge outside social convention, it seals the gap which a text like Owen's "The Letter" opens between the genders.
The exotic Chinese setting of "The River-Merchant's Wife" calls the modern English reader's attention to the patriarchal obedience structure which has shaped and constrained the wife's voice. The poem, like many Western texts, exploits the Western projection of sexual oppression onto the "Orient" -- but only in order to deny it. The wife's arranged marriage is, her letter "artlessly" reveals, a love match after all. One of the rhetorical effects of this move in the context of Great War discourse is to repudiate charges that women cheerfully wave "adieu" out of resentment, vicarious glee, or aggression; another is to locate women's renewing loyalty to men outside systems of sexual inculcation and familial arrangement, to recover a pure heterosexual alliance untainted by war's gendering systems. Kenner argues that the Cathay poems "paraphrase an elegiac war poetry nobody wrote"; but I would argue that in its defense of women and of remaining bonds between men and women "The River-Merchant's Wife" bears strong resemblance to any number of Great War poems written by women, including Farjeon's "Easter Monday" and Lowell's "Patterns," in which adieus are shown to falter and significant connections to persist.
The river-merchant's wife's position was, in fact, to some extent Pound's own. He was, after all, sending typescripts of some poems in Cathay as literal letters to the front, to Gaudier-Brzeska. (After the book came out in print his friend wrote from the Marne that he kept it at all times in his pocket.) Pound's choice of poems to send to the trenches in manuscript is interesting, for he selected not examples like his "River-Merchant's Wife" which represent some version of his own situation, that of the one "left behind," but poems which explore the position of his correspondent, the ones which speak in the voice of combatants -- the sorrowful, obliquely outraged "Song of the Bowmen of Shu" and "Lament of the Frontier Guard." Gaudier-Brzeska very much appreciated these choices; "the poems," he wrote after receiving them, "depict our situation in a wonderful way." "Our situation" means primarily, I assume, the condition of trench warfare, the implied combatants' "we" excluding the civilian Pound even as the praise of Pound's poems, and that simple verb or realism "depict," embrace him into the corps.
In Cathay as a whole, then, speaking the war poem in Chinese, speaking it translated, was one way for Pound the noncombatant to speak without obvious falsehood or reprisal the one language of masculinity in wartime which seemed to matter: the language of the soldier. He could do so through Rihaku (Li Po) without making illegitimate or exploitative claims. Instead of the audacity of dramatic monologue, he offered the simple mediations of the interpreter. Depicting men's war "in a wonderful way," he confirmed his own poetic manhood. In Pound's "non-Chinese" Great War poems, that confirmation is even more pronounced; the delicately fetishized women and discreetly semieroticized male bonding in Cathay are replaced by gender in extremity. Parts IV and V of "Mauberley," with their critique of the "dulce et decorum" formulation, openly enlist in the ironic "war poem" tradition of the soldier poets. Any reader who doubts the heightened and declared masculinity of that tradition in Pound's hands should consult the famous line concerning the "old bitch gone in the teeth," one of the most overtly misogynist moments in twentieth-century war literature.
From A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War. Copyright © 1991 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.
Garret Kaoru Hongo
"The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" contains, for me, the keys to a method and a style in free verse, coupling with the Whitmanic principle of the syntactic and rhythmic integrity of the line with Pound's insistence on an imagistic "hardness" he found in the Provençal and Anglo-Saxon poetry he was also translating at this time. Notice the method of imagistic indirection by way of descriptive statement here, Locke's "simples" as opposed to his "compounds" -- what Pound called, in that famous essay he developed from Fenollosa's notes, the "ideogrammic method." Here also is the Chinese principle of poetic and metaphysical parallelism at work, with the added attraction of the enumerative, complex sentence -- a contribution from English rather than the Chinese. These are techniques which have all become the familiar stock-in-trade of free verse practitioners through the Modern and contemporary periods. The style also imports a tender, melancholic tone into English that is at once intimate and nostalgic without being overtly sentimental or formally elegiac as was so much of the late Victorian work against which Pound was trying to rebel. It is a new sound and somehow, for me, it remains as much so as does the saxophone and trumpet of John Coltrane and Miles Davis in the sextet that recorded Kind of Blue in the late 1950s.
From The Line in Postmodern Poetry. Ed. Robert Frank and Henry Sayre. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
One can easily excommunicate Pound from the Forbidden City of Chinese studies, but it seems clear that in his dealing with Cathay, even when he is given only the barest details, he is able to get into the central consciousness of the original author by what we may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance.
In a similar vein, we find Pound producing these lines from "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" (i.e. "The Song of Ch'ang-kan"):
1. While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
2. I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
3. You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
4. You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
5. And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
6. Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
7. At fourteen I married My Lord you.
8. I never laughed, being bashful.
9. Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
10. Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
Arthur Waley was apparently very unhappy with Pound's translation, and he decided to show Pound a few things by re-translating some of Li Po's poems that Pound had rendered. These are found in a paper he read before the China Society at the School of Oriental Studies, London, on November 21, 1918. One of these efforts is "Ch'ang-kan." This is how he rendered the above lines:
1. Soon after I wore my hair covering my forehead
2. I was plucking flowers and playing in front of the gate,
3. When you came by, walking on bamboo-stilts
4. Along the trellis, playing with green plums.
5. We both lived in the village of Ch'ang-kan,
6. Two children, without hate or suspicion.
7. At fourteen I became your wife;
8. I was shame-faced and never dared smile.
9. I sank my head against the dark wall;
10. Called to, a thousand times, I did not turn.
What we consider good in Waley is already forged in Pound, for instance, line 10. "Called to, a thousand times, I did not turn," can hardly be considered Waley's own nor does it show any improvement upon Pound's "Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back." The gesture of "looking back" (or of her refusing to look back) which helps to vivify the visualization of her shyness and which in turn makes the entire picture even more lovable than it is, is totally lost in Waley's "I did not turn." One may argue that Waley is more literal, for the line in question is, word-for-word, "thousand/ call/ not/ one/ turn(-head)." But in translation, one should always go beyond the dictionary sense. And here Pound does and Waley does not. This is even truer in line 1 and line 6. Line 1 in word-for-word translation is: "'My' (humble term used by women when speaking of themselves)/ hair/ first/ cover/ forehead."
WALEY: Soon after I wore my hair covering my forehead
POUND: While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
Pound has crossed the border of textual translation into cultural translation and Waley has not, though he is close enough to the original. Whether the credit for the phrase "hair still cut straight across" should go to Fenollosa or to Pound's own observation in Laurence Binyon's Department of Oriental prints and drawings in the British Museum is of no important consequence here. What is important is that this picture is culturally true, because the characters for "hair/ first/ cover/ forehead" conjure up in the mind of a Chinese reader exactly this picture. All little Chinese girls normally have their hair cut straight across the forehead.
Even more stimulating than this visual recreation of cultural details, which restores flesh to the skeleton of dictionary meanings, is Pound's ability to go beyond the "word-sense" and "phrase-sense" and capture the voice and tone of the speaker, something which no dictionary can ever provide and which it takes a student years of familiarity with the language to grasp. Waley translates line 6. "two/small (children)/no/ hate/ suspicion," into "Two children, without hate or suspicion." It is obvious that he is accurate in the sense that he has not changed a bit from the given dictionary meanings. Yet Pound, keeping close to the dictionary meaning, has done something more:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
It is indeed difficult to describe in another language the tone and attitude with which the two characters [two Chinese characters here] (two/small) are spoken. However, we can at least say this: it implies that a grown-up person is speaking to a person (an imaginary audience) about two children's innocence. And, in this case, the wife is speaking to herself and her husband together (imagining that her husband is actually before her) about themselves in the phase of innocence (imagining that they both now see themselves, as children, in front of them). There is a peculiar aura of intimacy, love, and hushed beauty around these two characters as they are being spoken, one that can only be shared by the addressee who forms a part of this lovely scene. Now, Waley's "two children" has of course conveyed the idea of innocence, but being merely a statement of fact, it does not assume the tone of a grown-up person speaking, with love and intimate playfulness, to and before a child. Pound's "two small people," harking back to the vocabulary of nursery rhymes, seems to me to have fulfilled all the demands described above.
To turn from these specific contours of consciousness to the more general meanings in the poem, we find that Waley has unjustly translated "bamboo-horse" into "bamboo-stilts." A bamboo-horse is something like a hobby-horse or cockhorse as in a nursery rhyme which begins
Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady on a white horse.
Chinese children like to use a bamboo-stick (without the horse-head) and make believe that it is a horse. They ride on it the same way one would ride on a cockhorse. Pound also uses "bamboo-stilts" (which form another favorite game for Chinese children but are different from a bamboo-horse), but keeps the horse-image.
Waley deliberately changes the word "bed" into "trellis," and gives in a footnote this explanation: "It is hard to believe that 'bed' or 'chair' is meant, as hitherto translated. 'Trellis' is, however, only a guess." But, as well illustrated by Charles Patrick Fitzgerald in his recent book Barbarian Beds: The Origin of the Chair in China (1965), the Chinese character in question can be a bed (primary meaning), a chair, a seat, or a couch. And since they were mere small children, there is no reason why they should avoid playing around a chair, seat, or even a bed. (In fact, one might even suspect that the word "bed" is used deliberately to evoke simultaneously two sorts of memories, that of distant childhood and that of recent past, for the addressee is the speaker's husband.) Pound, probably trying to avoid erotic connotations, chooses "seat" for "bed," which is closer to the original than Waley's choice. It could be more specific.
There is also a level of formality in the lines involved which Waley misses and which Pound retains. One word in line 1 [Chinese character] (literally, concubine, a humble term used by women or wives when speaking of themselves) and one word in line 7 [Chinese character] (lord, you) reflect the two levels of formality in the forms of address between husbands and wives that were commonly maintained at that time (the eighth century). Pound, without overdoing it, retains this flavor in the line
7. At fourteen I married My Lord you.
The honorific level here implies that the speaker is addressing from a humble level.
It seems quite clear now that although Pound has been sharply limited by his ignorance of Chinese and by much of Fenollosa's crippled text, he possesses a sense of rightness, an intuitive apprehension in poetic organization or, to borrow a term from Eliot, "the creative eye" which we should not begrudge giving due credit. For even within the limits of free improvisation and paraphrase in the "Exile's Letter," he sometimes tends to come closer in sensibility to the original than a literal translation might.
From Ezra Pound's Cathy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969. Copyright © 1969 by Princeton UP.
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
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 Cathy: Translation and Imagism. New York: Garland, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Garland.
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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