The River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter

Original Text: 
Ezra Pound, "CATHAY for the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku, from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the decipherings of the professors Mori and Ariga," Lustra (London: Elkin Mathews, 1916): 73-74. PS 3531 O82L8 1916 Robarts Library.
2I played about the front gate, pulling flowers
3You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
4You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums
6Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
7At fourteen I married My Lord you.
8I never laughed, being bashful.
9Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
10Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
11At fifteen I stopped scowling,
12I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
13Forever and forever, and forever.
14Why should I climb the look out?
15At sixteen you departed,
16You went into far Ku-to-Yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
17And you have been gone five months.
18The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
19You dragged your feet when you went out.
20By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
21Too deep to clear them away!
22The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
23The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
24Over the grass in the West garden,
25They hurt me.
26I grow older,
27If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
28Please let me know beforehand,
29And I will come out to meet you,
By Rihaku.


1] Translated from Li Po, the Chinese poet (701-62). A secondversion appears as "105. Two Letters from Chang-Kan -- I (A river-merchant's wife writes)" in The Works of Li-Po, trans. Shigeyoshi Obata (London: J. M. Dent, 1923): 151-52 (PL 2671 A1 1923 Robarts Library):
I would play, plucking flowers by the gate;
My hair scarcely covered my forehead, then.
You would come, riding on your bamboo horse,
And loiter about the bench with green plums for toys.
So we both dwelt in Chang-kan town,
We were two children, suspecting nothing.

At fourteen I became your wife,
And so bashful that I could never bare my face,
But hung my head, and turned to the dark wall;
You would call me a thousand times,
But I could not look back even once.

At fifteen I was able to compose my eyebrows,
And beg you to love me till we were dust and ashes.
You always kept the faith of Wei-sheng,
Who waited under the bridge, unafraid of death,
I never knew I was to climb the Hill of Wang-fu
And watch for you these many days.

I was sixteen when you went on a long journey,
Traveling beyond the Keu-Tang Gorge,
Where the giant rocks heap up the swift river,
And the rapids are not passable in May.
Did you hear the monkeys wailing
Up on the skyey height of the crags?
Do you know your foot-marks by our gate are old,
And each and every one is filled up with green moss?

The mosses are too deep for me to sweep away;
And already in the autumn wind the leaves are falling.
The yellow butterflies of October
Flutter in pairs over the grass of the west garden.
My heart aches at seeing them ...
I sit sorrowing alone, and alas!
The vermilion of my face is fading.
Some day when you return down the river,
If you will write me a letter beforehand,
I will come to meet you -- the way is not long --
I will come as far as the Long Wind Beach instantly.

For other translations, see Kai-chee Wong, Pung Ho, and Shu-leung Dang, A Research Guide to English Translation of Chinese Verse (Chinese University Press, 1977), p. 59, no. 897. Back to Line
5] A suburb of Nanking. Back to Line
30] "The Long Wind Beach, of Chang-feng Sha, is in Anhwei, several hundred miles up the river, from Nanking. It is really a long way. But by making the wife say that the way is not long, Li Po brings out the girlishness of the speaker" (The Works of Li-Po, p. 152). Pound uses the Japanese form of the place name. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
See Gallup A9
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1998.