"The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter" by Ezra Pound


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 look out?

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 pair 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-fu-Sa.

Li Bai (701-762), translated by Ezra Pound
From Cathay (1915)

In my early twenties, I didn't know many poems outside the Anglo-American tradition. I had studied Latin for six years but didn't see how the Aeneid or any other verse from a foreign language could help my writing in the 1970s. Then I read Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era and learned how Ezra Pound had found, in ancient Chinese poems, a model for using imagery in modern poetry. 

In 1913 Ezra Pound was a 28-year-old freelance writer living in Church Walk, Kensington. He'd been reading Confucius and grew interested in Chinese poetry after reading the stilted but evocative translations of Herbert Giles, a Cambridge University sinologist.


Church Walk, Kensington, as it is  in today's London

By an extraordinary piece of luck, Pound met Mary Neil Fenollosa at a London party. She was the widow of the American scholar Ernest Fenollosa, who had spent years studying Chinese verse. Impressed by Pound's earnestness and by his poetry, she entrusted the young man with her husband's research notes.

Working from them, Pound translated 17 poems by Li Bai (sometimes called Li Po or Rihaku) and several other Chinese poets, and in 1915 he published them as a collection titled Cathay. Many of the poems dealt with separation and loss, and, in the second year of The First World War, they resonated strongly with readers.

I've loved this poem since the first time I read it. The woman's voice is convincing: the handful of details it offers brings a whole world to life but without any unnecessary embellishments. If you've ever been parted from the person you love, I think Li Bai's poem, brought over into English with such care and affection by Pound, will touch you.


In February 1915 Pound checked the proofs for Cathay in this Sussex cottage he shared with W.B. Yeats (Photo: Nigel Purdey)

"Proud Songsters" by Thomas Hardy



The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
                In bushes
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
        As if all Time were theirs.

These are brand-new birds of twelve-months' growing
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
                Nor thrushes,
But only particles of grain,
        And earth, and air, and rain.

In 1926 Virginia Woolf visited the 86-year-old Thomas Hardy at his home in Dorchester, Dorset. He was, she wrote, "extremely affable and aware of his duties." What impressed her most was "his freedom, ease and vitality" (A Writer's Diary, edited by Leonard Woolf, 1953).

Those three words also fit the poems he was working on at the time, which showed undiminished powers of observation, reflection and metrical invention. And Hardy was prolific: by the time of his death in January 1928, he had written, rewritten or selected 105 poems for an eighth collection of his poetry. It was published the following October, with the title Winter Words

The work was drawn from five decades; "Proud Songsters" was placed near the head of the book, and it has remained one of Hardy's best known poems. A few years later, Gerald Finzi set the poem for tenor and piano, finding music that follows the progress of the words, from the matter-of-fact first stanza to the wonderstruck second.

There are many poems about spring, but this is one of my favorites: as quiet as an April morning, but pulsing with life, like spring itself.



Hardy at the Garrick Theatre, London for a production of Tess of the D'Ubervilles in December 1926 (Courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery)

A child's ecstasies remembered


       Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world than I. All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. All things were spotless and pure and glorious.

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The green trees, when I saw them first, transported and ravished me; their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy--they were such strange and beautiful things.

O, what venerable creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And the young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of beauty! I knew not that they were born or should die; but all things abided eternally.

I knew not that there were sins or complaints or laws. I dreamed not of poverties, contentions or vice. All tears and quarrels were hidden from mine eyes. I saw all in the peace of Eden. Everything was at rest, free and immortal.

from Centuries of Meditations, 3.1-3, Thomas Traherne (1636-74)

Thomas Traherne was an English clergyman who published just one book during his short life; two more books of his appeared later in the 17th century. But Centuries of Meditations was not among them. Probably written soon after he graduated from Oxford in 1656, this incandescent work was neglected by the busy world for 200 years.

The manuscript for Centuries of Meditations was discovered in an outdoor bookstall in London in 1896 by W.T. Brooke, who thought it a work of Henry Vaughan. Only after the pages had passed through several hands did Bertram Dobell, a London bookseller and expert on 17th-century literature, recognize the style of writing as that of Traherne. He supervised the first edition of the work, which appeared in 1903; it has seldom, if ever, been out of print since.

Centuries of Meditations influenced writers and thinkers as diverse as Thomas Merton, crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers and British poet Elizabeth Jennings. Gerald Finzi (1901-56) set portions of the book to music, and C.S. Lewis has called it "almost the most beautiful book in English." 



The River Wye in Herefordshire, nearly where Traherne was born 1636

Illustration: Detail from Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing; Watercolor and graphite on paper by William Blake (c. 1786), courtesy of the Tate Britain, London.

Photo: Courtesy of Monkhall Cottages, Callow, Herefordshire.