Pound finds the Modern in the Exotic: “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”

The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter

from Cathay (London: Elkin Mathews: 1915), pp. 11-12.*

by Ezra Pound

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 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 swirl-
ing 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
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.
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.
By Rihaku.

If some future historian or culture critic were sifting about the ruins of our time and wondered how and when we became different from our Western predecessors, he should give more than a passing glance at this poem. There were “modern” (and even consciously-created “modernist”) poems before this one. This was not the first poem of the so-called “Imagist” movement, not even Pound’s first. Pound did not found the movement. And Pound wasn’t even the first artist to “discover” Li Bai, whose first century poem Pound translates here. (Mahler used a German translation of four Li Bai poems in his symphony for alto and tenor, Das Lied von der Erde, which had been first performed four years before in 1911.) Nevertheless, the poem is probably the most striking evidence of the fault that was then opening up with the past which would become a full-out earthquake with World War I and the aftermath.

Le Père Tanguy by Vincent Van Gogh. (Oil on canvas. 1887. Musée Rodin.)

Le Père Tanguy by Vincent Van Gogh. (Oil on canvas. 1887. Musée Rodin.) Click to enlarge.

Foremost Pound conciously reaches back to an ancient aesthetic in translating the great Tang dynasty poet.  Given that the Romanticism of the time was becoming so highly mannered and (much like the Rococo to the Baroque) moved the aesthetics of an era beyond its moorings, looking outside the prevailing Western tradition was almost a necessity. Yes, “Chinoiserie” and “Japonism” were both then fashionable in Europe, as it had from time to time over the last several hundred years. But Pound’s approach was not to highlight the exoticness or quaintness of the “oriental.” He intentionally adopts the point of view of the ancient as directly (that is, without the need for an anthropological or historical filter) relevant to modern man. By contrast, see how Van Gogh highlights the clash of East and West in his portrait of Julien “Père” Tanguy. (L’Art Nouveau, which would flourish around the turn of the century, and figured prominently at the Paris Exhibition in 1900, was more formulaic and even adapted for everyday design, but it was still self-consciously exotic.) Pound would continually commune with the ancients, particularly the Hellenes and Romans (his important Homage to Sextus Propertius would be published four years later), the medieval troubadour tradition (which runs through the Cantos, which he began at the time of this poem), and less successfully with the ancient Egyptians. In all of these cases Pound treated the ancients as people who had something vital to say to us right now. He did not have the attitude of a museum curator, treating the ancients as primitives or their culture as curios.

To convey as much of the content (intellectual and aesthetic) of the original (literally, to make the best “translation”) Pound, next, had to focus on what is possible to convey in English, in poetry, from the original. Pound would eventually develop his own aesthetic theory of poetry around two central media of communication: verbal images and the aural “music” (rhythm, melody, sound) of the poem. He seems to have at first stumbled on the principles here by his chance encounter with the writings of Ernest Fenollosa.

Ernest Francisco Fenollosa. (Unknown photographer. From The Ninth Report of the Secretary of the Class of 1874 of Harvard College. June, 1874 - June, 1909. (Cambridge: Riverside Press: 1909).

Ernest Francisco Fenollosa. (Unknown photographer. From The Ninth Report of the Secretary of the Class of 1874 of Harvard College. June, 1874 – June, 1909. (Cambridge: Riverside Press: 1909).

Fenollosa was something of a polymath. He had studied philosophy at Harvard, divinity at Cambridge and art at the art school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The important early American Darwinian Edward S. Morse invited him to Japan in 1878. The year before Morse had visited Japan to collect brachiopods and was selected by the Emperor to help westernize Japan.  (Japan was reaching outside its own immediate cultural tradition at the same time the West was.) Morse recommended Fenollosa to teach Western Philosophy at the Imperial College in Tokyo. (More on Morse in a future post.) While in Japan Fenollosa developed a fondness for Japanese art so much so that it was he, the Yankee, who provide an impetus among Japanese painters for a revival of sorts in Japanese painting. He even helped found the Tokyo Fine Arts Academy. On return to Boston, Fenollosa became the curator of Oriental Art at the Boston Fine Arts Museum. After dismissal from the Museum (involving the scandal surrounding his divorce and too soon remarriage) he returned to Japan to teach again. When he died in 1908 (back in America), Fenollosa’s widow (the second wife who cased the Boston scandal) chose Pound to entrust with her husband’s notes on Chinese poetry and Japanese plays. (Pound shared these notes with his colleague William Butler Yeats, who studied Fenollosa’s theories on Japanese Noh drama.)

Fenollosa had come up with a theory of Chinese poetry, which seems somewhat loopy on the face of it, and it turns out cannot withstand the scrutiny of modern scholars. Nevertheless, the ideas contained enough electricity to charge Pound into not only editing and publishing Fenollosa’s work as “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” (1920) but also claiming that it provided a basis “of the fundamentals of all aesthetics.” The crux of the analysis seems to be that ancient Chinese did not operate like any known modern language. It did not obey modern (or at least Indo-European) grammatical rules, and the “meaning” of words was not subject to the kind of definitions we are used to: “Every written Chinese word is properly … an underlying word, and yet it is not abstract. It is not exclusive of parts of speech, but comprehensive; not something which is neither a noun, verb, or adjective, but something which is all of them at once and at all times.” On top of all this he saw the radicals by which the words were written as providing a pictorial view of the word which was part of the elements of the poem.

Of course none of these things, even if true, is particularly amenable to translation. But in his notes Fenellosa provided a key of sorts for Pound: under the radicals he provided words with something like a visual etymology of the radical. Pound used these notes to “translate” a number of Li Bai’s poems in his book Cathay. (Pound calls the poet Rihaku.) And despite the lack of rigorous scholarship behind the notes, Pound was able to “translate” the poem with an accuracy that defies later more scholarly attempts.

Ultimately, whatever caused him to conceive of the poem as he did, Pound produced an English poem of stunning beauty. The work is broken up into stanzas (unlike the original) to indicate the different ages and the different sensibilities of the narrator. The vocabulary becomes more sophisticated with each stanza, as are the images that are conveyed. And importantly the images carry the poetic voice. There is no attempt to stuff the Chinese poem into some Romantic or post-Romantic form. How that would kill the poem is shown by the first four lines of W.J.B. Fletcher’s translation of the same poem, which does just that:

When first o’er maiden brows my hair I tied,
In sport I plucked the blooms before the door.
You riding came on hobbyhorse astride,
And wreathed my bed with greengage branches o’er.

It is perhaps unkind to compare this effort with one of the great works of one of the English language’s most masterful lyrical poets, especially since Fletcher was not a professional poet, but rather a diplomat who translated while acting as British consul in Hoihow, China. His preface to the book from which this translation comes, Gems of Chinese Verse translated into English (Shanghai: 1919), makes the expected showing of being offered “not without diffidence” and there is no indication in the book that he knew of Pound’s translation, much less that he was trying to outdo it. Nonetheless he did have someone vouch for the poetry in the preface. H.L. Hargrove (a Saxon scholar who identifies himself in the preface as “Ph.D., Yale”) says: “What Keats said Chapman did for Homer is what Fletcher has done for the Poetic Realm of Old Cathay.” And Hargrove was not talking about the verity of the translation: “I am no Sinologist and cannot vouch for the accuracy of the translation, but I know this is true poetry.”

What is more surprising than a hackneyed rendering by an Edwardian civil servant is the fact that Amy Lowell, who was once a colleague in the avant-garde with Pound, decided to one up him. It is true that Lowell tried to (and succeeded for a year or so until it became irrelevant) usurp the titular leadership of the Imagist movement from Pound. But to attempt to outdo him on this very poem was a foolish errand.

I presume that Lowell’s version is a better literal translation. The actual translation was done by Florence Ayscough, a member of the East Asia Society. Lowell only takes credit for the “English versions.” Ayscough also provides a useful cultural and historical introduction to the collection. In a couple of instances the literal translation which Lowell renders shows how Pound took liberties (or misunderstood) the original. For instance, the monkeys (“gibbons” in Lowell’s work) don’t howl over the wife (suggesting in Pound’s piece the loneliness of the writer), but in the place that the husband has gone (evidently to show how haunting that place is). But even knowing that Pound changes the text, it is hard to say that it is not better for all that.

In fact, when you compare Lowell’s poem to Pound’s, you find that Pound in almost every instance in which they differ chose the better approach. You simply have to consider Pound’s choice “My Lord You” with Lowell’s “the wife of my Lord” to conclude that Pound had the pulse of the lyric. Lowell makes no attempt to follow Pound’s lead in differentiating the voices of the narrator by age.  In fact, by using the third person in the first line, Lowell undoes some of the natural naiveté in the narrator’s voice.  Lowell’s use of “my Lover” in the third line is jarring compared to the muted innocence of Pound’s letter writer. The one line that Pound adds (“Forever and forever and forever”) emphatically shows how intense and permanent her love had become, an anchor that Lowell’s poem lacks.  If one were going to disturb the line “The paired butterflies are already yellow with August,” there really must be a better line than “It is the Eighth Month, the butterflies are yellow” (although Fletcher’s choice “September now!—the butterflies so gay” is clearly much worse).  And Pound was completely right in leaving the place names untranslated; the translation seems pedantic in Lowell’s piece, although Lowell’s reference to  “Looking-for-Husband Ledges” evokes a more compelling image than Pound did with his unexplained line “Why should I climb the look-out?”

It is nevertheless a testament to the enduring value of Li Bai’s original, however, that Lowell’s piece is itself an artful poem, one that but for Pound’s version would be considered a masterful translation.

Ch’ang Kan
by Li T’ai Po

from Fir-Flower Tablets (Boston: Houghton Co: 1921), pp. 28-29.**

by Amy Lowell

WHEN the hair of your Unworthy One first began to cover
her forehead,
She picked flowers and played in front of the door.
Then you, my Lover, came riding a bamboo horse.
We ran round and round the bed, and tossed about the 
sweetmeats of green plums.
We both lived in the village of Ch’ang Kan.
We were both very young, and knew neither jealousy nor 
At fourteen, I became the wife of my Lord.
I could not yet lay aside my face of shame;
I hung my head, facing the dark wall;
You might call me a thousand times, not once would I turn 
At fifteen, I stopped frowning.
I wanted to be with you, as dust with its ashes.
I often thought that you were the faithful man who clung to
the bridge-post,
That I should never be obliged to ascend to the Looking-for-
Husband Ledge.
When I was sixteen, my Lord went far away,
To the Ch’ü T’ang Chasm and the Whirling Water Rock 
of the Yü River
Which, during the Fifth Month, must not be collided with;
Where the wailing of the gibbons seems to come from the sky.
Your departing footprints are still before the door where I 
bade you good-bye,
In each has sprung up green moss.
The moss is thick, it cannot be swept away.
The leaves are falling, it is early for the Autumn wind to 
It is the Eighth Month, the butterflies are yellow,
Two are flying among the plants in the West garden;
Seeing them, my heart is bitter with grief, they wound the
heart of the Unworthy One.
The bloom of my face has faded, sitting with my sorrow.
From early morning until late in the evening, you descend 
the Three Serpent River.
Prepare me first with a letter, bringing me the news of
when you will reach home.
I will not go far on the road to meet you,
I will go straight until I reach the Long Wind Sands.


* The text follows the punctuation and wording (as well as line-breaks) of the original. Some modern anthologies differ.

** The text here also follows the punctuation, spelling, word-choice and line-breaks of the original.

  1. July 26th, 2010
  2. September 8th, 2010
  3. May 20th, 2011
  4. December 31st, 2012

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