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The Development from Innocence to Self-Awareness in the Imagery and Tone of “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”

Ezra Pound’s translation of the eighth century poem, “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” by Li Po is an exquisite example of his ability to transcend the differences of language to adequately capture the essence of the poem’s mood of sadness and loss. The poem is unique in that it is in the form of a wife’s letter to her husband, and it establishes the point of view from her experience, yet retains a formal feeling of great suppressed emotion. The emotions which the wife feels are not actually described in words, yet are projected through the images and tones employed in her recollection of the progression of the relationship. These emotional projections follow her self-development, moving from the innocence of childhood to the maturity of self-awareness through the slow growth of love, and finally the sadness through the realization of loss.

In the first stanza, Pound portrays the wife as an innocent youth, and then shows her progression to being identified with the husband, and finally bound to him by marriage. In the first line, the wife is recalling the time when her “hair was still cut straight across my forehead,” implying that there has been a change from that time of youth, for her hair must no longer be that way. With the introduction of the husband as a child playing horse on stilts in the third line, the wife’s self focus in the first two lines is replaced by an emphasis on his presence. The husband’s appearance as soon as the third line draws attention to how short the wife’s childhood was, separate from her destiny as wife. His social superiority is implied in the description of his arrival on stilts, being higher than her, yet the naiveté of both about his position is apparent in her description of them as “two small people, without dislike or suspicion.” (ln. 6) The presence of this line also implies that this state of...