Arthur Davison Ficke

At Ise (1907)

When she was dead, and the votive tablets
Began to darken that bore her name,
He left the cheerless mountain village,
The hills that seemed no more the same,

And donned the faring pilgrim’s garments;
And turned his face toward the happy south
Where the Lord of Summer dwells forever
With a sunny smile on his poppy mouth.

But his was no glad path of summer.
No lighted meadow bloomed for him.
He trod strange lonely hills at noontide;
At dusk, strange ways with shadows dim.

Men gave him rice or fruit or saké
Or fresh-caught fish, as each could spare.
The rains of eve fell coldly round him;
The dews of night were on his hair.

Along the great Tokaido roadway
As by some unseen tempest blown,
He drifted ’mid the stream of travellers,
Silent and weary and alone.

And in the end won slowly onward,
Less live than dead, less man than wraith,
To where in Ise’s valleys moulder
The strongholds of the Ancient Faith.

He passed the timeless groves of camphor;
He passed the blessed Cleansing Stream;
And saw amid the sacred cedars,
Beneath the torii’s faded gleam,

That Shrine before all others holy,
Set in a wide sequestered glade.
And standing at the white-veiled portal
He bowed his head and prayed:—

“God who art sun and earth and sky,
My mother’s heart, my father’s spirit,
Unto whose ear the priests lift cry,
Lord of all life our souls inherit,—

“Thou who art shadow over me
And shining light around my head,—
Give back one light to comfort me,
Bring back one living from the dead.

“I fear the labyrinthine ways
Where in new shapes our souls are born,
Lest she and I may miss always,
Nor ever see the same white morn.

“Thou who art judge of all the earth,
Who art the judged, who art the rod,—
Stay, of the countless, one rebirth;
And praised be thou, the Unknown God.”

A thousand pilgrims came and went.
A thousand prayers rose from the Shrine
To Him whose eye as one beholds
The dawning and the set of time.

The years went by; yet day by day
Steadfast before the holy place
He waited, in whose heart grew fear,
Though trembling hope shone on his face.

The camphor-trees are mouldering now.
A newer greater temple stands
Where stood the old; and pilgrims come
To pray the prayers of many lands.

But as last night I walked the grove,
I heard before the temple stair
A voice that trembled on the dusk
With hopeless passion of faint prayer:—

“Shadow and light around our heads,—
Thou who art judge, and judged, and rod,—
Who are the living? Who the dead?
Who art thou, thou Unknown God?”




For an overview of Ficke’s relation with Japan see Arthur Davison Ficke and Japan in the Bibliography. ‘At Ise’ (BG1c) appeared in The Happy Princess and Other Poems (BG1).

Of Fickes work with a clear relation to Japan only Spectra (BG6) is in print. The full text is included in The Spectra Hoax, by William Jay Smith (available in the US here, the UK here).



















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