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Set in China, Ezra Pounds “The River-Merchants Wife: A Letter” tells the story of a sixteen-year-old teenager who is married to a river merchant. Seen through the eyes of the narrator, who is the teenager, the poem focuses on imagery to create a world of emotions. Pound divides her poem in three stanzas and each one represents a memory the narrator has with the river-merchant.
To begin with, the first stanza shows the narrator’s friendship with the river-merchant. Because Ezra Pound was born in 1885, the poem probably happens during the modern age, but the reader does not have enough information to precisely know the time period. The story starts with the narrator pulling flowers in front of the main gate. This suggests that she is from a high class family because she plays in front of a mansion’s soil that possibly belongs to her parents. This also suggests that she kills time while she waits for something to come. While she plays, the river-merchant comes “by on bamboo stilts, playing horse” (Pound 213, 3) and he then juggles with blue plums in front of the girl. This suggests that they are children having a good time. The previous scene pictures a typical children’s way of life where all they do is have fun. They are “two small people, without dislike or suspicion,” (Pound 213, 6) in the village of Chokan; they seem to have a stable friendship. Therefore, half of the stanza shows how beautiful a children’s life is.
She then marries the river-merchant at age fourteen and she refers to the him as “My Lord you” (Pound 213, 7). Because “you” is at the end of the line and written after “My Lord,” there is a negative subvocalization. This suggests that there is forced marriage because the girl is fourteen years old and she sounds as if she does not love the river-merchant; she is not ready for a serious relationship. In the last three lines of the stanza, the narrator tells how timid she is when she looks at a wall for some time while her name is being called many times. It is possible that because she never asked for marriage, she feels sad for she does not want to be with the river-merchant. She also might be thinking about how sad she will be for the rest of her life with her husband.
Then, the second stanza tells shows the river-merchant’s departure. The turns fifteen years old and she starts to love her husband; she wants her dust to be mixed with his forever. It took her a year to start loving him. The narrator then writes: “Why should I climb the lookout?” (Pound 213, 14). It is possible that the river-merchant is gone trading goods along rivers because that is his job and the time has come for him to leave his wife behind to make money. The narrator might climb a lookout in hope of spotting her husband, but what she probably means is that there is no use of climbing one since he will not come back home faster. It also means that she misses him. She might want to see her husband as soon as possible, but when a merchant is gone trading, the latter is gone for a long time. The narrator then says that the river-merchant begins his journey at age sixteen. The reader also reads that the river-merchant has been gone for five months towards Ku-to-yen and that “the monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead” (Pound 214, 18). Complex animals such as monkeys, elephants, bears, dolphins, and birds feel emotions (Tangley). Monkeys are similar to humans and they do feel sadness, but they express it through body language and not through sorrowful noise. Therefore, this suggests that the narrator does not hear monkeys. Instead, she possibly wants to say that she is sad without saying she is. Reasons for her sadness could be that she misses her husband, that she thinks he will never come back home or that something misfortunate happened to him and he died.
Finally, the last stanza is the narrator’s last chapter in her tale and it explains her loneliness. The first line is: “You dragged your feet when you went out” (Pound 214, 19). This implies that before leaving for months, the river-merchant walked reluctantly away from his house as he did not want to leave his wife. Months later, the gate has grown moss so deep that it is impossible to get rid of it. There is no way that mosses can grow deep enough for one not being able to get rid of them because they have weak stems and with their short height, they can easily be removed (Brain 185). Mosses also grow very slowly. Therefore, the deep moss implies that the river-merchant has been gone for years. Then, the autumn leaves fall earlier than usual because of wind. This suggests that she has stared so much at the wilderness in hopes of spotting her husband that she has forgotten about time; as the wind blows the colors of life away, she thinks about how lonely she is in her darkened world of separation from her husband. The narrator then observes paired butterflies flying in the garden and the latter are causing harm to her: “They hurt me. I grow older” (Pound 214, 25). Butterflies cannot cause harm to a person. Therefore, the narrator is not talking about physical but psychological harm the butterflies are inflicting on her. As the girl is staring at them, it is possible that, just like the butterflies, she wishes to be with her husband and have a good time with him. She grows older, her husband is still gone and she is lonely. The last four lines say that the narrator will meet her husband “as far as Cho-Fu-Sa” (Pound 214, 29 ) if ever he lets her know he is coming back home. This implies that the narrator is in a need to see her husband because she would travel hundreds of miles just to meet him. Maybe the river-merchant has experienced complications in his work because many years have passed in the poem and he is not back from his journey. Ezra Pound’s poem brings the reader through an emotional passage of time where the narrator is happy from lines one to seven, timid from lines eight to ten, happy once again from lines eleven to fourteen and the rest of the poem expresses her sadness. The poem brings the reader through emotions and imagery to finally say that the narrator will do whatever it takes to see her husband again because she loves him.
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