Joaquin Miller

At Vespers in Tokyo (1905)

Of all fair trees to look upon,
Of all trees pleasant to the sight
Give me the Poet’s tree in white—
Pink cherry trees of blest Nippon
With lovers passing to and fro—
Pink cherry lanes of Tokio:
Ten thousand cherry trees and each
Hung white with Poet’s plaint and speech.

Of all fair lands to look upon,
To feel, to breathe, at Orient dawn,
I count this baby land the best,
Because here all things rest and rest
And all men love all things most fair
And beautiful and rich and rare;
And women are as cherry trees
With treasures laden, brown with bees.

Of all loved lands to look upon,
Give me this love land of Nippon,
Its bright, brave men, its maids at prayer,
Its peace, its carelessness of care.
A mobile sea of silver mist
Sweeps up for morn to mount upon:
Then yellow, saffron, amethyst—
Such changeful hues has blest Nippon!
See but this sunrise, then forget
All scenes, all suns, all lands save one,
Just matin sun and vesper sun;
This land of inland seas of light;
This land that hardly recks of night.

The vesper sun of blest Nippon
Sinks crimson in the Yellow Sea;
The purple butterfly is gone,
The rainbow bird housed in his tree—
Hushed, as the last loved, trembling note
Still thrills its sweet, inspired throat—
Hushed, as the harper’s weary hand
Waits morn to waken and command.

Fast homeward bound, brown, busy feet
In wooden shoon clang up the street;
But not through all the thousand year
In Buddha’s temple may you hear
One step, see hue of sun or sea,
Though wait you through eternity.

Behold brown, kneeling penitents!
What perfumed place of silent prayer!
Burned santalum, sweet frankincense!
Pale, yellow priests pass here and there
And silent lisp with bended head
The Golden Rule on scrolls of gold
As gentle, ancient Buddhists read
These precepts sacred unto them
And watched the world grow old, so old,
Ere yet the Babe of Bethelehem.

How leaps the altar’s forky flame!
How dreamful, dense, the sweet incense,
As pale priests burn, in Buddha’s name,
Red-written sins of penitents—
Mute penitents with bended head
And unsaid sins writ deep in red.

Now slow a priest with staff and scroll,
Barefoot, as mendicant and old—
You sudden start, you lift your head,
You hear and yet you do not hear,
A sound, a song, so sweet, so dear
It well might waken yonder dead.
His staff has touched the sacred bowl
Of copper, silver, shot with gold
And wrought so magic-like of old
That all sweet sounds, or east or west,
Sought this still hollow where to rest.

And you, you lean, lean low to hear;
You doubt your ears, you doubt your eyes,
Your hand is lifted to your ear,
You fear, how cruelly you fear
The melody may die—it dies—
Dies as the swan dies, as the sun
Dies, bathed in dewy benison.

It lives again; you breathe again!
What cadences that speak, that stir,
Take form and presence, as of her
Whom first you loved, ere yet of men.
It utters essence as a sound;
As Santalum sends from the ground
For devotee and worshipper
Where saints lie buried, balm and myrrh.

But now so low, so faint, so low
You lean to hear yet hardly hear.
Again your hand is to your ear,
Your lips are parted, leaning so,
And now again you catch your breath!
Such breath as when you lie becalmed
At sea, and sudden start to feel
A cooling wave and quickened keel
And see your tall ship kiss the shore.
You hear, you more than hear, you feel,
As when the white wave shimmereth.
Your love is at your side once more,
An essence of some song embalmed,
Long hidden in the house of death.

Now low, so low, so soft, so still,
As when a single leaf is stirred,
As when some doubtful matin bird
Dreams russet morning decks his hill—
Then nearer, clearer, lilts each note
And longer, stronger swells the wave—
Ten thousand dead have burst the grave,
An angel’s song in every throat!
The forky flame turns and returns
To burn and burn red sins away;
Such incense on the altar burns
As some may breathe but none may say,
Though cherished to their dying day.

And now the sandaled pilgrims fall
With faces to the jeweled floor—
The incense darkens as a pall,
As clouds that darken more and more.
You dare not lift your bended head—
The silence is as if the dead
Alone had passed the temple door.
And now the melody, the song!
So stronger now, so strong, so strong!

The black smokes of the ashen urn
Where pale priests burn red sins away
Begin to stir, to start to turn,
As turns some evil thing abhorred-
To seek the huge, bossed copper door—
An evil things that dares not stay.
The while the rich notes roll and roar
To drive dread, burned sins out before
Calm Dia-Busta, the adored,
As cherubim with flaming sword.

And far, so far, such rich notes roll
That barefoot fishers far at sea
Fall prone and pray all silently
For wife and babes that wait the strand,
The tugging net clutched tight in hand,
The while they bow a space to pray;
For every asking, eager soul
Knows well the time and patiently
It lists, an hundred leagues away.

The thousand pilgrims girt in straw
That press Fujama’s holy peak,
Prone, fasting, penitent and meek,
Hear notes as from the stars and pray
As we who know and keep the Law—
As we who walk Jerusalem
With pilgrim step and pallid cheek:
How earnestly they silent pray
To do no thing, or night or day
They would not others do to them!

And wee, brown wives, on high, wild steeps
Of terraced plot and bamboo patch
Where toil, hard toil, incessant, keeps
Sweet virtue, sweet sleep and a thatch,
They hear and hold, with closer fold,
Their bare, brown babes against the cold.
They croon and croon, with soothing care,
To babes meshed in their mighty hair,
And loving, crooning, breathe a prayer.

The great notes pass, pass on and on,
As light sweeps up the doors of dawn,
And now the strong notes are no more,
But feebler tones wail out and cry,
As sad things that have lost their way
At night and dare not bide the day
But turn back to the shrine to die,
And steal in softly through the door
And gently fade along the floor.

The barefoot priest scares moves a hand,
Faint and more faint the last notes fall;
You hear them now, then not at all,
And now the last note of the land
Wails out as when a baby cries
At night, and at the altar dies.
How sweet, how sad, how piteous sweet
This last note at the bowed monk’s feet
That dies as dies some holy light—
A mist is rising to the eyes,
So loving sad, so tearful sweet,
This last, lost note,—Good night, good night!




‘At Vespers in Tokyo’ appeared in Japan of Sword and Love, by Miller and Yone Noguchi (Tokyo: Kanao Bunyendo, 1905). It appears in slightly different form as ‘Canto I’ of ‘Book Third’ in Light: A Narrative Poem by Joaquin Miller (Boston: Turner, 1907). See notes about Miller under The Little Brown Man, and about Noguchi in the Bibliography D15.






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