The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter

Ezra Pound

How the poem was born

In 1912, Ezra Pound became friends with Mary Fenollosa. She was a widow whose dead husband Ernest Fenollosa collected Chinese literature. Mary Fenollosa gave Ezra Pound her late husband's collection of Chinese poems. Pound translated the Chinese poems to English. They were known as Cathay poems. The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter was one of these poems.

Poetic Devices

Explanation of the imagery

The narrator clearly talks about herself as a child. There is a clear image of how her hair is cut--her bangs are straight across her forehead. There is an image of a small boy walking on stilts and circling around the girl. The narrator establishes that there is just her and the boy in this poem. Each line in the poem gives you a clear image of the letter. Also, because of the clear language used, the feelings or emotions of the narrator are accurately communicated.

Explanation of the symbols

The monkeys represent the wife's sorrow. The butterflies represent the absence of the husband. In the poem, the butterflies are paired and this causes the narrator pain because her husband is not with her.


The imagery in the first stanza helps the reader to assume the picture of what is going on. The poem has its focus on the river-merchant and his wife when they were children.
The second stanza depicts marriage at a young age, which was something traditional during ancient Chinese culture. The last two lines indicate that the wife is shy and would ignore her husband at times.
In the third stanza, the romantic relationship between the wife and her husband begins to form. The first line of the stanza (about not scowling) shows that the wife is becoming more mature as she wants to be with her husband forever.
The forth stanza reveals a separation between the wife and the husband as he travels on the rivers doing his job. The five-month absence of the husband brings sorrow upon the wife. The sounds of the monkeys, which would seem joyful to others, appear as sadness to the wife due to how much she misses him.
The last stanza describes how reluctant the husband is to leave his wife, so he felt the same way she did and did not want to be separated from her. The depth of the moss growth shows how long the husband has been away. The paired butterflies make the wife sad and feel hurt because she is without her partner. At the end, the wife longs to meet up with her husband.

Discussion Questions

Can Ezra Pound claim this poem as his own even if he translated it from a Chinese poem? Explain.

How would this poem satisfy some of the Modern Period characteristics?

What is an example of the theme 'love' in this poem?

What would be a great example of isolation in this poem?