A. C. Benson

Ode to Japan (March 1902)

Clasp hands across the world,
Across the dim sea-line,
Where with bright flags unfurled
Our navies breast the brine;
Be this our plighted union blest,
Oh ocean-thronèd empires of the East and West!

For you, for us, the thrill
And freshness of the tide,
Where ice-fed rollers fill
High hearts with steadfast pride;
For both, the genial tropic waves
Press warm across the sea, and chafe our shivering caves.

Here, rich with old delays,
Our ripening freedom grows,
As through the unhasting days
Unfolds the lingering rose;
Through sun-fed calm, through smiting shower,
Slow from the pointed bud outbreaks the full-orbed flower.

But yours—how long the sleep,
How swift the awakening came!
As on your snowfields steep
The suns of summer flame;
At morn the aching channels glare;
At eve the rippling streams leap on the ridgèd stair.

’Twas yours to dream, to rest,
Self-centred, mute, apart,
While out beyond the West
Strong beat the world’s wild heart;
Then in one rapturous hour to rise,
A giant fresh from sleep, and clasp the garnered prize!

Here, from this English lawn,
Ringed round with ancient trees,
My spirit seeks the dawn
Across the Orient seas.
While dark the lengthening shadows grow,
I paint the land unknown, which yet in dreams know.

Far up among the hills
The scarlet bridges gleam,
Across the crystal rills
That feed the plunging stream;
The forest sings her drowsy tune;
The sharp-winged cuckoo floats across the crescent moon.

Among the blue-ranged heights
Dark gleam the odorous pines;
Star-strewn with holy lights
Glimmer the myriad shrines;
At eve the seaward-creeping breeze
Soft stirs the drowsy bells along the temple frieze.

Your snowy mountain draws
To Heaven its tranquil lines;
Within, through sulphurous jaws,
The molten torrent shines;
So calm, so bold, your years shall flow
Pure as yon snows above, a fiery heart below.

From us you shall acquire
Stern labour, sterner truth,
The generous hopes that fire
The Spirit of our youth.
And that strong faith we reckon ours,
Yet have not learned its strength, nor proved its dearest powers.

And we from you will learn
To gild our days with grace,
Calm as the lamps that burn
In some still holy place;
The lesson of delight to spell,
To live content with little, to serve beauty well.

Your wisdom, sober, mild,
Shall lend our knowledge wings;
The star, the flower, the child,
The joy of homely things,
The gracious gifts of hand and eye,
And dear familiar peace, and sweetest courtesy.

Perchance, some war-vexed hour,
Our thunder-throated ships
Shall thrid the foam, and pour
The death-sleet from their lips.
Together raise the battle-song,
To bruise some impious head, to right some tyrannous wrong.

But best, if knit with love,
As fairer days increase,
We twain shall learn to prove
The world-wide dream of peace;
And smiling at our ancient fears,
Float hand in loving hand across the golden years.

Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925) was master (1885-92) and headmaster (1892-1903) at Eton, fellow (1904-15) and master (1915-25) at Magdalene College, Cambridge, editor of The Letters of Queen Victoria (1907), and prolific author of novels, short stories, poems, and, especially, essays, more than one hundred volumes of which appeared during his lifetime. ‘Ode to Japan’ first appeared in 1902 as Ode to Japan in an edition of fifty handsewn copies privately printed at the Chiswick Press.

Several volumes of Benson’s essays remain in print, but none of his verse.

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