National Poetry Day: The River-Merchant’s Wife

The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter

By Ezra Pound

after Li Po

published 1956/57

National Poetry Day Ezra Pound 1

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.

commentary: At a time when we are working out whether we can or should separate out works of art  and films from their makers and participants, Ezra Pound (1885-1972) is a worry. But then he always has been. There are indefensible issues in his life story – Wikipedia will tell you all.

But some of the poems are very beautiful, and he seems to have been the first person to understand the importance of TS Eliot’s The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock - Pound ensure its publication. He also helped edit The Waste Land, and Eliot dedicated it to him:

For Ezra Pound
il miglior fabbro.

(The Italian is from Dante, and means ‘the better craftsman’.)

The poem above is based on Li Po’s “Two Letters from Chang-Kan.” Li Po was a Chinese poet of the 8th century. There was a story doing the rounds at one time that Pound didn’t speak or read Chinese, and merely looked at the Chinese characters and made up his own poem. But it has been convincingly demonstrated to me that this is not true: he worked from a basic translation.

And the result is a true work of art, and will always be worth reading.

The picture is from the Walter’s Art Museum in Baltimore and used with their kind permission. It is a copy, by Qui Zhu, of a picture from the 16th century by Qui Ying. And that picture is based on the style of the Tang Dynasty, when the original poem was written.

The blog has marked National Poetry Day before, and a lot of favourite poems have featured one way and another.


  1. That's an excellent choice for National Poetry Day, Moira. Li Po's poetry is beautiful, and I ought to spend more time with it. Interesting point about Pound, too. On the one hand, he was responsible for getting some fine work published, and for his insights. On the other, as you say..

    1. Thanks Margot. Reading a great poem always adds something to the day doesn't it? No matter who the writer was...

  2. Moira, after reading a racy action-packed thriller, reading a poem is like a soothing balm. I must start reading poetry again. It used to be a habit with me until a few years ago. I have read Ezra Pound though I don't remember what.

    1. Thanks Prashant - and of course the good thing about poems is that on the whole they don't take long to read!

  3. I actually recently downloaded a poetry anthology from Amazon, on the assumption that it is accessble and that I don't have to devote hours to translating meaning - I'm a philistine and a lazy reader. I'll let you know how I go at some point.

    1. Am impressed! And yes please, let us know how you get on...


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