Text of the Poem

While my hair was still cut straight across my
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers. 
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse, 
You walked about my seat, playing with blue
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:                     5
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.                10

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,                                                    15
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                20
Too deep to clear them away!                                            
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind. 
The paired butterflies are already yellow with
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.                                               25
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.


  1. It pains the speaker to see the symbols of time passing. In this stanza, we're able to definitively establish a timeline for the speaker, placing her husband's departure in March, five months before August, when summer gives way to fall. In this time, two seasons have passed, a garden has grown, and the speaker has spent much time staring at the river, awaiting her husband's return. It's unclear if he'll ever come back.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  2. Here's where the poem's structure first suggests that it's a letter. In the first five stanzas, the speaker provides a summary of her relationship with her husband, the "you" of the poem, even though he knows all of this already. It seems written for the reader's benefit, not his. Only the last stanzas begins to sound like a letter written to him. It could be that the final stanza alone functions as a letter, with the previous six examining her reasons for writing it.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  3. Moss, unlike ivy, doesn't take root in its substrate or upset a foundation's structural integrity. Instead, it anchors itself by way of single-celled rhizoids that cling to surfaces. Clearing it away wouldn't be a terribly difficult process, but would take some time, especially if the moss has grown as thick as the speaker suggests.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  4. The speaker never explicitly states her husband's reasons for leaving. Pound's title, "The River Merchant's Wife," suggests that he left for work, but the original title doesn't, and Li Po gives no direct indication of the husband's profession, except that he's frequently on the river. Given that this departure immediately follows the speaker's question about distance, she might be wondering why her husband left, and if he loves her as much as she loves him.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  5. One reading of this line would be, "Why should I look elsewhere for happiness?" This could mean looking out for a new husband, making new friends, or going on an adventure, such as climbing to a lookout. This line also suggests that the speaker wants to maintain physical and emotional proximity to her husband. "Why should I climb the look out?" then becomes "Why should I ever leave you behind?"

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  6. Notice the speaker's shyness when she interacts with her new husband. Given that they were friends before this, it's a little strange that she's uncomfortable. Perhaps, as was often the case in 8th century China, this marriage was arranged for her by her parents, and though she loved her friend dearly, she wasn't prepared for this change in the nature of their relationship.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  7. In 8th century China, when this poem was written, girls married in their teens, shortly after they reached child-bearing age. This practice, common even into the early 20th Century, resulted in many forced or arranged marriages between two people unprepared for this situation. Luckily for the speaker, she knows and likes her husband, but this doesn't mitigate her youth or inexperience.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  8. From this line, we can assume that the speaker equates childhood with a kind of innocence corruptible by time. She's aware that adults are far more prone to dislike and suspicion, and that they will likely fall victim to these same troubles, but is both wise enough and sensitive enough to enjoy her innocence while she has it; whether it lasts, readers may never know for sure.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  9. Here it's important to note that Pound didn't write "The River Merchant's Wife" but rather translated it from the original Chinese, written by Li Po. Li Po's natural images and Eastern sensibility would've appealed to Pound as one of the founding members of Imagism, a movement in poetry dedicated to clarity, rhythm, and precision in diction. Pound's translation is one of the most faithful and well-known, with the only major change being the title, originally written as "Chang'an Memories."

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  10. Though these lines describe two kids playing happily in a yard, they also introduce an important power differential: the speaker, a female, stays low to the ground, inadvertently positioning herself as an inferior to her friend, the boy on bamboo stilts. When he walks around her on stilts, he draws a circle around her and marks his territory.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  11. Notice how the speaker uses the word "still" in combination with the description of the haircut to indicate both her age at the time and the fact that some time has passed. While bangs are more commonly styled for girls than for boys, this is not an inherently gendered haircut, and if not for the title a reader wouldn't have definitive proof of the speaker's gender until the second stanza of the poem.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor