Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter

by Rikahu, translated by Ezra Pound

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
Played I 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 noises 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 in 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.

* * *

I have to pacify my normally anti-modernist sentiments by assuring them that this is actually an old Chinese poem. But I really don't know how much of it is Pound's interpretation.

The amazing thing about this poem is the imagery. Each image is sharp and bright, and lends itself to the meaning.

In the first stanza, the speaker and her future husband are only children. They have nothing against each other. But when he becomes her husband, her Lord, she becomes bashful. She doesn't want to obey this new master in her life. Yet as she grows older, she grows into love with him, and loses her desire to "climb the lookout," which I interpret as her desire to be part of a larger world, outside her home with her husband. And, pace modern feminists, this isn't a bad thing: she doesn't care to go far from home because she loves her home.

He goes away on a journey while she is still young. Five months is a long time at sixteen. Her husband loves her too; he did not want to go away from her. Now he has been gone so long the grass grows over the gate where she longs for him to enter. The "paired butterflies" hurt her because she is reminded that she cannot be with the other half of her own pair. She grows older, because she is still a child. There is a part of her growing up with him that he will miss. She also grows older through sorrow, as sorrow makes one grow. At the end, she shows her willingness to meet him again, even if it takes a long journey.

Never in the poem does the speaker say "I began to love you" or "I miss you now." Yet it is implied throughout, so heavily that one feels it all around without feeling it is too explicit. This would be an example of a poem that does not say directly what it means, and yet is not at all unclear.

Credit and gratitude are due Leah of A Magic Light for giving me the idea of posting this poem.


Leah said...

Thanks for the link. I enjoyed reading your analysis.

This poem is one I just don't get tired of no matter how often I read it. Those last four lines are amazing to me- so matter of fact on the face of it and yet, in their own way, as charged with love as any of Shakespeare's sonnets.

I see we both enjoy reading the letters of the Browning's as well. I especially like the ones Elizabeth Browning wrote. Her personality comes through so well and she seems so nice.

Sheila said...

Yes -- I would have loved to meet her. She seems such a sweet person.

Anonymous said...

do you know what some of the literary devices that she uses?

Anonymous said...

Um, isn't it "you went far into Ku-to-yen" and not "you went into fat Ku-to-yen"?

Sheila said...

Fixing it -- thanks!

Anonymous said...

no it was '' You went into far Ku-to-yen,...'' ( I have it in the Poetry:a Pocket of Anthology book)