"The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter"
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 lookout?
At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, 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-fo-Sa.
This opening stanza of 6 lines is organized around a central image of the river-merchant and his wife as a child, confirmed by the first component of the central image: the picture of a little girl with her hair cut in bangs. (The mark of an adult woman in the ancient Chinese culture was elaborate arrangements of uncut long hair.)Each line contributes to a clearer understanding of the central image of the children. The repetition in three separate lines of the verb "playing" to describe the little girl's activity at the front gate, as well as the little boy's presence on stilts and his circling around where she sits, emphasizes the natural, contented activity of children — almost as a part of the natural world referred to here by "flowers" and "blue plums." This stanza establishes the presence of the "I" and the "you" in the world of the poem.
The second stanza places the girl and the boy, the "I" and the "you," as a woman and man in the adult world. In ancient cultures, and in some cultures today, early marriages are customary, and it is often also the custom for the wife to refer to her husband by a respectful title. In the case of this poem the formality of the title is softened by the direct address of "you" added right after it.
establish the child-wife's shyness in this formal adult situation by offering a picture of her bent head and averted eyes, a shyness so extreme that she could not respond to her husband, no matter how many efforts he made.
The central image of this stanza is the growth of love between the young husband and wife. Her face, which in the first stanza has the bangs of childhood across her forehead, in the second stanza is averted and unsmiling, "stops scowling" in the third stanza. The vows of the marriage ceremony, "till death us do part," are evoked in lines 12 and 13 and poignantly reinforced by the triple repetition in line 13 of "forever." It is unclear whether "climb the lookout" in line 14 is a reference to a ritual performed in this culture by a wife after death, perhaps to look for other offers to marry that might come her way. If it is, it means that the wife as a widow does not want to do this. In any case, it is clear that there is nothing she wishes for after the death of her husband, so deep is her love for him now.
An image of separation is developed in these lines as the husband takes on his role as a river-merchant and travels the waters, conducting his work in the world on a distant island. The wife's statement of the length of his absence is expressed in one line, giving it full and emphatic force. And in line 18 the effect of this long absence is brought to full comprehension by the use of the natural image of the sounds of the monkeys that reflect back to her the sound of her own sorrow. The sounds that monkeys make are generally interpreted as chirping, happy sounds, but the weight of the wife's sorrow is so great that she can only hear the monkeys' noise as "sorrowful."
The first three lines of this final 11-line stanza are centered on the image of the river-merchant's absence. Line 19 indicates that he was as averse to this separation as she was. In line 20 the phrase "by the gate" (perhaps the same gate they played about as children), indicates that she has returned to this gate and in her memory sees him reluctantly leaving again. For her it is the scene of the beginning of his absence. And evidently she knows this scene well: not only is there moss growing there, but she is aware that there are different kinds of mosses, which she has not cleared away since his departure. They are now too deep to clear away.
In line 22 the sadness of the river-merchant's wife is again reflected back to her by the natural world, by the falling leaves and wind of autumn. This image becomes more defined with her observation of the butterflies in the garden, for they are "paired" as she is not, and they are becoming "yellow" changing with the season, growing older together. The butterflies "hurt" her because they emphasize the pain of her realization that she is growing older, but alone, not with her husband.
In these closing lines of the poem and the "letter" the river-merchant's wife reaches out from her lonely world of sorrow to her husband in a direct request: Please let me know when and by what route you are returning, so that I may come to meet you. This, however, conveys more than it would at first appear. Her village is a suburb of Nanking and she is willing to walk to a beach several hundred miles upstream from there to meet her husband, so deeply does she yearn to close the distance between them.
Source: Exploring Poetry, Gale. © Gale Group Inc. 2001.