The River Merchant's Wife:
A Letter


Mezzo-soprano and piano (low key)

Soprano and piano (high key)




Sage Lutton and Tim Harrell, mezzo and piano, April, 2013
Jee Hyun Lim, soprano version, October, 2013

Steven Sametz Publications

Program Notes

In 1912, Ezra Pound met Mary Fenellosa, widow of Earnest Fenellosa, a scholar of east Asian studies.  Mary entrusted Ernest’s notes on Chinese poetry translations to Pound.  Pound did not speak Chinese, but through Fenellosa’s notes and meditating on Chinese characters of the poem (which to him were like drawings), he crafted the poems of his collection, Cathay, published in 1915. “The Rivers Merchant’s Wife,” taken from the original of Rihaku (a.k.a.Li Po), describes the maturing love of a fictional 8th-century girl as she waits for the return of her merchant husband from a business trip.
I encountered “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” more than thirty years ago and have had it in mind to set ever since.  It’s one of those poems that takes a long time – or its own time – to unfold.  The poem balances the River Merchant’s wife’s reflections from when she was a young girl, “when my hair was still cut straight across my forehead” (the traditional style for an unmarried woman of the time), to her discovery of physical attraction (” I desired my dust to be mingled with yours”) to her emotional connection and the longing that comes with absence, as she fears that she is growing old alone in autumn.  The only thing I added is the final “ah!,” an indicator not only of her longing, but of her doubt that her husband will ever return.


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:         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 mosses,         20
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.         25
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river,
Please let me know beforehand,
  And I will come out to meet you, As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

From the Chinese of Li Po.