A Dream of Bric-à-Brac (1890)
I dreamed I was in fair Niphon.
Amid tea-fields I journeyed on,
Reclined in my jinrikishaw;
Across the rolling plains I saw
The lordly Fusi-yama rise,
His blue cone lost in bluer skies.
At last I bade my bearers stop
Before what seemed a china-shop.
I roused myself and entered in.
A fearful joy, like some sweet sin,
Pierced through my bosom as I gazed,
Entranced, transported, and amazed.
For all the house was but one room,
And in its clear and grateful gloom,
Filled with all odors strange and strong
That to the wondrous East belong,
I saw above, around, below,
A sight to make the warm heart glow,
And leave the eager soul no lack,—
An endless wealth of bric-à-brac.
I saw bronze statues, old and rare,
Fashioned by no mere mortal skill,
With robes that fluttered in the air,
Blown out by Art’s eternal will;
And delicate ivory netsukes,
Richer in tone than Cheddar cheese,
Of saints and hermits, cats and dogs,
Grim warriors and ecstatic frogs.
And here and there those wondrous masks,
More living flesh than sandal-wood,
Where the full soul in pleasure basks
And dreams of love, the only good.
The walls were all with pictures hung:
Gay villas bright in rain-washed air,
Trees to whose boughs brown monkeys clung,
Outlineless dabs of fuzzy hair.
And all about the opulent shelves
Littered with porcelain beyond price:
Imari pots arrayed themselves
Beside Ming dishes; grain-of-rice
Vied with the Royal Satsuma,
Proud of its sallow ivory beam;
And Kaga’s Thousand Hermits lay
Tranced in some punch-bowl’s golden gleam.
Over bronze censers, black with age,
The five-clawed dragons strife engage;
A curled and insolent Dog of Foo
Sniffs at the smoke aspiring through.
In what old days, in what far lands,
What busy brains, what cunning hands,
With what quaint speech, what alien thought,
Strange fellow-men these marvels wrought!
As thus I mused, I was aware
There grew before my eager eyes
A little maid too bright and fair,
Too strangely lovely for surprise.
It seemed the beauty of the place
Had suddenly become concrete,
So full was she of Orient grace,
From her slant eyes and burnished face
Down to her little gold-bronze feet.
She was a girl of old Japan;
Her small hand held a gilded fan,
Which scattered fragrance through the room;
Her cheek was rich with pallid bloom,
Her eye was dark with languid fire,
Her red lips breathed a vague desire;
Her teeth, of pearl inviolate,
Sweetly proclaimed her maiden state.
Her garb was stiff with broidered gold
Twined with mysterious fold on fold,
That gave no hint where, hidden well,
Her dainty form might warmly dwell,—
A pearl within too large a shell.
So quaint, so short, so lissome, she,
It seemed as if it well might be
Some jocose god, with sportive whirl,
Had taken up a long lithe girl
And tied a graceful knot in her.
I tried to speak, and found, oh, bliss!
I needed no interpreter;
I knew the Japanese for kiss,—
I had no other thought but this;
And she, with smile and blush divine,
Kind to my stammering prayer did seem;
My thought was hers, and hers was mine,
In the swift logic of my dream.
My arms clung round her slender waist,
Through gold and silk the form I traced,
And glad as rain that follows drouth,
I kissed and kissed her bright red mouth.
What ailed the girl? No loving sigh
Heaved the round bosom; in her eye
Trembled no tear; from her dear throat
Bubbled a sweet and silvery note
Of girlish laughter, shrill and clear,
That all the statues seemed to hear
The bronzes tinkled laughter fine;
I heard a chuckle argentine
Ring from the silver images;
Even the ivory netsukes
Uttered in every silent pause
Dry, bony laughs from tiny jaws;
The painted monkeys on the wall
Waked up with chatter impudent;
Pottery, porcelain, bronze, and all
Broke out in ghostly merriment,—
Faint as rain pattering on dry leaves,
Or cricket’s chirp on summer eves.
And suddenly upon my sight
There grew a portent: left and right,
On every side, as if the air
Had taken substance then and there,
In every sort of form and face,
A throng of tourists filled the place.
I saw a Frenchman’s sneering shrug;
A German countess, in one hand
A sky-blue string which held a pug,
With the other a fiery face she fanned;
A Yankee with a soft felt hat:
A Coptic priest from Ararat;
An English girl with cheeks of rose;
A Nihilist with Socratic nose;
Paddy from Cork with baggage light
And pockets stuffed with dynamite;
A haughty Southern Readjuster
Wrapped in his pride and linen duster;
Two noisy New York stock-brokérs
And twenty British globe-trottérs.
To my disgust and vast surprise
They turned on me lack-lustre eyes,
And each with dropped and wagging jaw
Burst out into a wild guffaw:
They laughed with huge mouths opened wide;
They roared till each one held his side;
They screamed and writhed with brutal glee,
With fingers rudely stretched to me,—
Till lo! at once the laughter died,
The tourists faded into air;
None but my fair maid lingered there,
Who stood demurely by my side.
“Who were your friends?” I asked the maid,
Taking a tea-cup from its shelf.
“This audience is disclosed,” she said,
“Whenever a man makes a fool of himself.”
Among a variety of
posts John Milton Hay (1838-1905) held during a long tenure in public
service was U.S. Ambassador to Britain (1897-98) and U.S. Secretary of
State (1898-1905). He is particularly remembered for his promotion of
the Open Door Policy with China. He also was author of, among several
other works, the often-reprinted Pike County Ballads and Other Pieces
(1871), the novel The Bread Winners (1883), and, with John Nicolay,
Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890), for many years the standard
Lincoln biography, which drew upon Hay’s years as Lincoln’s
private secretary. ‘A Dream of Bric-à-Brac’ appeared
in Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1890).
Hay’s Poems are in print
in the US and available here.