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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 innocence is later destroyed, and that perhaps their marriage will create hostile feelings which they lacked in their childhood.

The tone changes in line seven, as there is a tinge of bitterness present when the wife says that she married “My Lord you.” The capitalization of “My Lord” puts the husband on a pedestal, and then drops him down again with the lower case “you,” making this title almost mocking. This line also makes a reference to her age when she got married. It starts off with “At fourteen,” which is similar to the beginnings of the second and third stanzas, but is appropriately still part of the first stanza, indicating that she was still a child during the first year of her marriage. In lines eight through ten, at the beginning of the marriage, the uncomfortable relations which are results of her shyness as a child are reiterated. The wife avoids looking at her husband, and looks only at the wall, an image which is an excellent metaphor for the force which divides them.

The break between the first and second stanzas is appropriate for the change in the wife’s attitude towards her situation. Even though she does not return to the happiness of childhood, and doesn’t even smile, she does stop scowling. This image connotes that she has taken on the acceptance of her role as wife, and is not as bitter or aloof as she was in her first year of marriage. The wife doesn’t just accept her role, but desires to be one with the husband. She says “I desired my dust to be mingled with yours/Forever and forever and forever.”(ln. 12-13) Here she is looking forward to the renunciation of her self in the destruction of both so that she may be bound to her husband in the eternal forever which is emphasized by its repetition. Thus, her love is beginning to develop, but only through her denial of her self will. She expresses this disavowal by asking, “Why should I climb the lookout?” (ln. 14). This could imply that she doesn’t want to look to the future,...
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