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.
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 Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you,
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

By Rihaku.

- Li Po, translated in 1915 by Ezra Pound, in Cathay: Translations. Shigeyoshi Obata's translation of the same poem can be found at A river-merchant's wife writes and another uncredited translation can be found at The River-Merchant's Wife. CST Approved

Noden Sie Ihre Hausaufgabe!


Like his spiritual predecessors, the Elizabethan poets who translated and refined the work of poets in France and Italy, Ezra Pound took ideas from the poetry of China and adapted it to the English world. His work was more than mere translation, it was a systematic reinterpretation and renewal infused with his own artistic energy. A fluent speaker of Chinese, he could have accomplished a direct transliteration easily, but he chose to go further. He took the works in a new direction, translating what could not be translated through other means. In the process, he founded the literary movement of Imagism and profoundly influenced the work of most significant poets and writers of his period. The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter is one of these translations that are much more than translations; based originally off the poem by Classical Chinese scholar Li Pao (Ruthven 139). Ezra Pound represents a powerful expression of longing by an estranged wife through the skillful use of image, projection, and passage of time.

Pound's expressive technique of descriptive, dynamic images allows him to subtly depict powerful emotional states. Opting for the beauty and discreet depiction of his speaker's feelings and thoughts by image instead of bluntly trying to communicate them through direct narration helps to draw the reader further into the poem. At the beginning he sets a mood of pure and untouched innocence with the image of a boy, "on bamboo stilts, playing horse" (Pound 3). The childlike way in which the girl's object of affection likens himself after riders with his toy horse of wood pervades the entire stanza with innocence. Her story of her past feels like a dreamy, half-remembered memory of youth, exactly the emotion Pound hopes to evoke. When transitioning into a new phase of her life, the girl tells that, "I looked at the wall./Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back" (Pound 10-11). The image of a wall calls to mind the irrevocable boundary of life she has crossed by marrying. No longer a child, she has stepped forever into adulthood, away from the innocence of the previous stanza. As a year passes, she gains new insight into her relationship, and a new image is necessary to convey the changes. Pound describes her dawning love by having her say that, "I desired my dust to be mingled with yours" (Pound 12). This method of relation summons scenes of the husband and wife travelling together along life's journey, with the dust kicked up by their footsteps intermingled in their companionship. Later in his absence, she describes a beautiful but saddening image, "The paired butterflies are already yellow with August" (Pound 23). The autumnal hues of the butterflies reflects the river-merchant’s wife’s feelings of creeping old age, that her vitality is fading with each passing month apart from him. Using several images such as this densely packed with meaning, Pound clearly but subtly invokes powerful emotional states.

Near the end of the poem Pound projects his speaker's melancholy onto her observations so that they can be better expressed by indirect perspective. Instead of directly telling the state of her mind, Pound allows the influence of her mental state on the way she sees her surroundings to do the work for him. His speaker tells dully that, "The monkeys make a sorrowful noise overhead" (Pound 18). It would be silly to say that the monkeys are expressing grievance over the loss of a person about whom they do not know or care. The sounds they make are the same as before the river-merchant left. Instead, the way that Pound's speaker hears them is changed. The sounds become sorrowful because she is sorrowful. Likewise, the wife sees a physical expression of her spiritual state when she notices, "By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,/Too deep to clear them away!" (Pound 20-21). The moss grown is not significant in itself, rather what Pound intends to express is the way the moss is a reflection of the layers of longing growing thickly upon her soul. One can see a final example of projection in the way that the speaker describes her husband's departure, "You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies" (Pound 16). Swirling eddies evoke feelings of confusion, uncertainty, doubt; such emotions the river-merchant's wife surely feels concerning his travel in distant lands. By projecting emotional states on the surrounding landscape and observations, Pound expresses his speaker's emotional, mental, and spiritual state indirectly.

The passage of time throughout the poem provides clear transitions between varying emotional states. It gives the poem coherency and lends a solid base of support to the river-merchant's wife’s deep feelings for her husband. In the beginning the Imagism expressing childhood innocence is complimented by the way in which she relates that the two children, "went on living in the village of Chokan" (Pound 5). The process of continual action is undisturbed by any assault to their innocence. It simply continues on, tranquilly, until the next step of their journey together begins. The speaker makes clear the sequential progress of her feelings for her husband by using sequential phrases, "At fourteen" (Pound 7), "At fifteen" (Pound 11), "At sixteen" (Pound 15). The love for her husband does not come all at once, rather it develops in gradual steps from embarrassed subservience to anger to devotion to longing. Once her husband is gone and the wife feels the press of years upon her, she directly states that, "I grow older" (Pound 25). The use of present tense, indicating habitual completed action, is an incidental example of the way in which Pound adapts to English concepts that are surely expressed differently in the original language of the poem. Her aging proceeds ploddingly on, without respite or repentance. It occurs always and she is acutely aware of it in her husband's absence. She yearns for the old days in which she could be with him, "For ever and for ever and for ever" (Pound 13). This construction, in another example of adaption, reflects that of Shakespeare's play Macbeth with the line "to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow" (Ruthven 139). Through repetition Pound lends weight to her emotional state, and the transition is eternal. She will always desire him, from each moment to each moment, and that desire results in the longing expressed through the end of the poem. The passage of time is another technique in which Pound shows the change and justification of his speaker's emotional states.

Through use of central, dynamic images, emotional projection on observations, and the flowing passage of time, Pound evocatively expresses the emotion of longing his speaker has for her husband in The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter. The original Chinese, which could have been translated dully word for word to produce an obtuse and awkward piece in English, is instead given artistic impact by Pound's modifications and invigoration. His translation becomes more than just the mere communication of words, it translates the ideas of the poem as well, in a way that is adapted to the beauty of the English language perfectly. Just as Elizabethan poets took the Petrarchian form and made it their own, producing a unique and fascinating era of English poetry, Pound founded Imagism with his own new spin on a very ancient form.


Pound, Ezra. Selected Poems. London: Faber & Faber, 1928.
Ruthven, K. K. A Guide to Ezra Pound's Personae. Berkely: University of California Press, 1969.

I have always loved "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" through a degree of suspicion, a vague feeling of discomfort. I have wondered how much of the wife's behavior was interpreted through a western view of arranged marriages and child brides. A few moments of internet research was particularly enlightening. Pound was working from Ernest Fenollosa's translation of the poem from Japanese and Pound apparently had not yet begun the study of Chinese himself. Fenollosa, about whom I know nothing, injected into the poem a tension between the wife and her marriage which is not present in the Chinese text. This is duly presented in Pound's version, beautifully and effectively.

My father, a poetry loving engineer, was able to identify the source poem one line into reading Pound's rendition. I asked him to do a literal translation of Li Bai's original poem. It and a url for Fenollosa's translation can be found at the end of this writeup.

Li Bai is one of the most famous, beloved Chinese poets in Asia (literally, one of two). He is also one of a group of poets named affectionately the Eight Drunken Immortals after the mythological figures by the same name. His works center around a love of life; mundane things that he elevates through his exploration. His works, whether exhuberant or sad, are anchored in concrete experience even if they explore whimsical or fantastic elements.

The poem, in the Chinese, is profoundly different from both Pound and Fenollosa's versions. The title is a location name, and nowhere in the poem does it state that the speaker is the wife of a river-merchant. Basic descriptive elements are changed, such as "bamboo stilts," and "blue plums" instead of green. Stanza breaks are imposed irrespective of the poem's original form. However, two changes strike me as most indicative of an invasive western interpretation and a foray into Orientalism. The first is the dismissal of the poem's allusions to other literary texts and the insertion of a western interpretation on vocabulary used. The second is the idea that this marriage was arranged, not a love match in any way, and that the wife 'blossomed' in the marriage from indifference to love.

The first point may certainly be a result of ignorance. It does, however, serve to disconnect the poem from a long tradition of intertexuality. It also serves to open the text to associations not present for a contemporary Chinese reader. For example to refer to ashes and dust together, is a colloquialism, based on how they are indistinguishable from one another when mixed together. For a modern western reader, mention of ashes and dust may give rise to associations with eternity. Fenollosa and Pound go further and make the connection overt. The devotion of the speaker's love is shifted from a famous story of a drowing lover to death, religion, and eternity.

The second point is aided by the first. There are small, yet influential changes in word choice, perhaps due to a lack of fluency or unfamiliarity with other texts, and larger differences in interpretive lenses. Pound's choice to use ''stopped scowling'' directly impacts the previous stanza. Fenollosa attempts an interpretation of the ''open eyebrows:''

I first knew what married life meant; now she opens her eyebrows. i.e.. smooths out the wrinkles between her brows. She now began to understand love and to be happy.
However, Pound's choice of a strongly negative term scowl specifically places the speaker's previous behavior and emotions into the context of anger, resentfulness, and unhappiness. Suddenly, the speaker's unhappiness is a result of her early marriage, her extreme youth. Her growth into a loving wife is then in tension with her early distaste for the marriage. However, all versions of the poem open with her recounting her childhood friendship with her now husband. The central tension of the poem shifts from that of a shy friend blossoming into a devoted and demonstrative wife, to that of an unwilling bride learning to love her husband.

Much of the power of Pound's poem comes from this tension. The original poem celebrates a recurring theme in romantic Chinese literature, profound romantic love. It places it in a mundane context, rooted in the everyday rather than the high flown drama of courtly lovers. The conflict is external to the husband and wife, and a product of separation. Pound's rendition takes advantage of Fenollosa's shift. The speaker's love for her husband comes as a quiet reversal, the softly passionate words of a woman who was previously silent, and who has been apart from a new love for too long. The poem is now one of revelation and passion, and the conflict of her early unhappiness is used as a constrast for her current conflict, loneliness. While this is not a solely western ideal, Li Bai's characterization of the speaker as a dutiful wife does not admit an early conflict. She cannot be both one and the other. Thus, Fenollosa and Pound's portrayal is surely more western, and more typical to members of societies which have mixed views on fourteen-year-old brides and arranged marriages.

An irony of translation occurs in how the poem is concrete. Li Bai uses place names, common activities, and familiar sights and sounds to anchor his poem in the commonplace. Pound retains many of these elements in English (keeping Fenollosa's bamboo stilts instead of using the more familiar ''hobby-horse,'' etc.), and also deliberately maintains the Japanese place names. An English language reader without knowledge of that place or time would find these exotic. Still concrete, but still other.

In the end, the poem is still powerfully about love. It is beautiful, an evocative exemplar of Imagism, and profound. Its views, however, are skewed towards a concept of marriage and devotion which are more western than Chinese.


Ernest Fenollosa's line by line translation and notes (transcribed), and other poetic translations: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/othertranslations.htm

Some other interesting reading: Image files of Fenollosa's translations with Pound's notes upon them. Indicates that Fenollosa's widow arranged to send Pound Fenollosa's unpublished work in late 1913. http://www.library.yale.edu/beinecke/orient/mod3.htm And an essay on Fenollosa's views on Chinese as a writing form especially suited for poetry, and his skewed understanding of language which was nonetheless influential for Pound. http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/ezra_pound_chinese.html


My father's rough translation, which borrows a phrase or two from Pound.

Pinyin                       English
chang gan xing               Chang Gan Xing1

qie fa chu fu e              While bangs covered my forehead
zhe hua men qian ju          picking flowers and playing in front of my house
lang qi zhu ma lai           you came by riding bamboo horse2
rao chuang long qing mei     circling the trellis playing with green plums
tong ju chang gan li         both living in the village of Chang Gan
liang xiao wu xian cai       two little ones without dislike or suspicion

shi si wei jun fu            At fourteen, became your wife
xiu yan wei chang kai        my bashful face never smiled
di tou xiang an bi           lowering my head toward the dark wall
qian huan bu yi hui          called a thousand times, I never looked back

shi wu shi zhan mei          At fifteen started spreading my eye brows (overcame bashfulness)
yuan tong chen yu hui        wish to be just like dust and ashes
chang cun bao zhu xin        always hold the trust like pillar holding3
qi shang wang fu tai         why would I think of climbing the husband-waiting-lookout

shi liu jun yuan xing        At sixteen, you journeyed afar
qu tang yan yu dui           through the Qutang Gorge and by the Yanyu Pile4
wu yue bu ke chu             you have gone five months, I don't think you are there yet
yuan sheng tian shang ai     monkey's sorrowful cries in heaven above are all you can hear5

men qian chi xing ji         By the gate the foot prints you made while you left slowly
yi yi sheng lyu tai          all covered with green mosses
tai shen bu neng sao         mosses too deep to be swept
luo ye qiu feng zao          falling leaves and chilling autumn wind started early

ba yue hu die huang          It's August now, the butterflies are turning brown6
shuang fei xi yuan cao       in pairs they flutter over the grass in the west garden
gan ci shang qie xin         sensing these, my heart aches
zuo chou hong yan lao        sitting around worrying that my pink complexion is growing old

zao wan xia san ba           Early or late (eventually) when you come down from San Ba7
yu jiang jia shu bao         Beforehand, please send me a letter
xiang ying bu dao yuan       I will come to greet you without complaint of long travel
zhi zhi chang feng sha       all the way to Chang Feng Sha8

1 Chang Gan is a village in present day Jiang Ning County, in Jiang Su Provence. It is near, but not on, the Yangtze River. "Xing" is a form of Chinese poem, which was sung to accompanying music. Unfortunately, only the text of the poems survive.
2Small boys of 3 or 4 would take a length of bamboo and run around pretending it was a horse.
3In Zhuanzi, there is a story told about a lover who had an appointment to meet a girl under a bridge. A flash flood came while he was waiting, but he would not break his assignation. He held onto a pillar supporting the bridge until he drowned.
4Qutang is one of the three famous gorges known as the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River. The Yanyu ''Pile'' is a pile of partially submerged rock in the middle of the Qutang Gorge, which causes treacherous currents in the river.
5A common motif in Chinese poems was to describe the monkeys' cries in the gorges around the river as sounding like cries from heaven. This was due to the narrowness of the gorges and their extremely high, steep walls.
6August, in the lunar calendar, is considered mid-Autumn.
7San Ba is the ancient name for present day Sichuan province, up river from the Three Gorges.
8Chang Feng Sha was a port on the Yangtze River, near present day Anqing in Anhui province. It is about 200 miles from Chang Gan.

This was written up as a brief response paper for my Modern Poetry class, last week. I was the only one with a 7 page appendix....


11/13/2004 izubachi says Just as an update on your questions about Pound's translation of Li Po earlier; I've been neck deep in modernist the past few weeks and I've gathered from more than one direction that Pound was enthusiastic about languages occidental and otherwise, but his mastery of them was questionable. He cut corners by referencing second-hand translations into Continental languages (thus the French source for river merchant), and often erred in his independent translations in Chinese, Japanese, pretty much everything except Italian, French, and Langue d'Oc (which he really did have fluency in). This hit me especially close to home when I noticed a jarring grammatical error in a German snippet of one of his poems (an error so jarring most first-year German students would cringe at it). So your suspicions proved clearsighted. - Neat!

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