Walt Whitman

The Errand-Bearers (1860)

Over sea, hither from Niphon,
Courteous, the Princes of Asia, swart-cheek’d
First-comers, guests, two-sworded princes,
Lesson-giving princes, leaning back in their open
barouches, bare-headed, impassive,
This day they ride through Manhattan.

I do not know whether others behold what I
behold pass, in the procession, along with the
Princes of Asia, the errand-bearers,
Bringing up the rear, hovering above, around, or
in the ranks marching;
But I will sing you a song of what I behold,

When million-footed Manhatten, unpent,
descends to its pavements,
When the thunder cracking guns arouse me with
the proud roar I love,
When the round-mouth’d guns, out of the smoke
and smell I love, spit their salutes,
When the fire-flashing guns have fully alerted me
—When heaven-clouds canopy my city with a
delicate thin haze,
When, gorgeous, the countless straight steams, the
forests at the wharves, thicken with colors,
When every ship is richly drest, and carrying her
flag at the peak,
When pennants trail, and festoons hang from the
When Broadway is entirely given up to foot-
passers and foot-standers—When the mass is
When the facades of the houses are alive with
people—When eyes gaze, riveted, thens of
thousands at a time,
When the guests, Asiatic, from the islands
advance—When the pageant moves forward,
W hen the summons is made—When the answer
that waited thousands of years, answers,
I too, arising, answering, descend to the pavements,
merge with the crowd, and gaze with them.

Superb-faced Manhattan,
Comrade Americanos—to us, then, at last, the
orient comes.

To us, my city,
Where our tall-topt marbe and iron beauties
range on opposite sides—to walk the space
To-day our antipodes comes.

The Originatress comes
The land of Paradise—land of the Caucasus—
the nest of birth,
The nest of languages, the bequeather of poems—
The race of eld,
Florid with blood, pensive, rapt with musings,
hot with passion,
Sultry with perfume, with ample and flowing
With sunburnt visage, with intense soul and
glittering eyes,
The race of Brahma comes.

See, my cantabile! these, and more, are flashing
to us from the procession;
As it moves, changing, a kaleidescope divine it
moves, changing, before us.

Not the errand-bearing princes,
Not the tann’d Japanese only—not China only,
nor the Mongol only,
Lithe and silent, the Hindoo appears—the whole
continent appears—the past, the dead,
The murky night-morning of wonder and fable,
The enveloped mysteries, the old and unknown
The North—the sweltering South—Assyria—the
Hebrews—the ancient of ancients,
Vast desolated cities—the gliding Present—All of
these, and more, are in the pageant-procession.

Geography, the world, is in it,
The Great Sea, the brood of islands, Polynesia,
The coast beyond—the coast you, henceforth, are
facing—you, Libertad! from your western
golden shores,
The countries there, with their populations—the
millions en masse—are curiously here,
The multitudes are all here—they show visibly
enough to my eyes,
The swarming market-places—the temples, with
idols ranged along the sides, or at the end—
bonze, brahmin, and lama, also,
The madarin, farmer, merchant, mechanic, and
fisherman, also,
The singing-girl and the dancing-girl—the
ecstatic person, absorbed,
The interminable unpitied hordes of tollsome
persons—the divine Buddha,
The secluded Emperors—Confucius himself—the
great poets and heroes—the warriors, the
castes, all,
Trooping up, crowding from all directions—from
the Altay mountains,
From Thibet—from the four winding and far-flowing
rivers of China,
From the southern peninsulas, and the demi-
continental islands—from Malaysia,
These, and whatever belongs to them, palpable,
show forth to me and are seized by me,
And I am seized by them, and friendlily held by
Till, as here, them all I chant, Libertad! for
themselves and for you.

I too, raising my voice, bear an errand,
I chant the World on my Western Sea,
I chant, copious, the islands beyond, thick as
stars in the sky,
I chant the new empire, greater than any
before—As in a vision, it comes to me;
I chant America, the Mistress—I chant a greater
I chant, projected, a thousand blooming cities
yet, in time, on those groups of sea-islands,
I chant my sailships and steamships threading
the archipelagoes,
I chant my stars and stripes fluttering in the wind,
I chant commerce opening, the sleep of ages
having done its work—faces, re-born, refreshed,
Lives, works resumed—the object I know not—
but the old, the Asiatic, resumed, as it
must be,
Commencing from this day, surrounded by the

And you, Libertad of the world!
You shall sit in the middle, thousands of years,
As to-day, from one side, the Princes of Asia
come to you,
As to-morrow, from the other side, the Queen of
England sends her eldest son to you.

The sign is reversing, the orb is enclosed,
The ring is circled, the journey is done,
The box-lid is but perceptibly opened—nevertheless,
the perfume pours copiously out of the
whole box.

Young Libertad!
With the venerable Asia, the all-mother,
Be considerate with her, now and ever, hot
Libertad—for you are all,
Bend your proud neck to the long-off mother, now
sending messages over the achipelagoes to
you, young Libertad;
—Were the children straying westward so long?
So wide the tramping?
Were the precedent dim ages debouching westward
from Paradise so long?
Were the centuries steadily footing it that way,
all the while, unknown, for you, for reasons?
—They are justified—they are accomplished—
They shall now be turned the other way also,
to travel toward you thence,
They shall now also march obediently eastward,
for your sake, Libertad.

‘The Errand-Bearers’ appeared in the New York Times on June 27, 1860, and appears in all subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass, most often under the revised title ‘A Broadway Pageant’. The text presented here, including line breaks dictated by a single newspaper column, is from the first publication.

The poem responds to the arrival in New York of the seventy-six ambassadors of the first Japanese Embassy to the United States, June 16, 1860, from Philadelphia, after its representatives had signed in Washington the Treaty of Kanagawa, the chief document that had resulted from the arrival of Matthew Perry and his warships at Uraga seven summers earlier.

The long front page reports of the Times of June 16 and 18 capture the excitement of the occasion. The Japanese Ambassadors ‘will be welcomed as becomes the representatives of that great and mysterious Empire on their first visit to the Yeddo of the Western Hemisphere’, the July 16 report began, and

[t]he arranegemts made by our authoriities and citizens for their reception are on the most liberal scale, and the panorama of their escort from their landing at the Battery to their head-quarters at the Metropolitan Hotel, will probably form one of the most novel and imposing spectacles ever witnessed in this City.

The July 18 Times recounts the events Whitman witnessed this way:

The procession was one of the finest displays of the kind ever witnessed in the City, and comprised no less than six thousand men of our First Division of Militia . . . beside the long line of carriages. First, came a corps of Police, mounted and on foot. The Washington Grays and Seventh Regiment troop, and the Eighth Regiment Engineer Corps, Drum Corps, and Guard of Honor. This last completely surrounded the Common Council Committee and Japanese guests, so that even without the aid of the police, four of whom guarded each carriage, the Japanese would have traversed the entire line of march without any of that impertinent scrutiny at the very sides of the carriages which has characterized their visit to other cities. In the first carriages rode the Common Council Committees and their Secretary and Sergeant at-Arms. Next came the first, second and third Ambassadors, in separate open barouches, accompanied repsectively by Capts. Dupont, Lee and Porter, of the Naval Commission. The Japanese Treasurer, Governor and Secretaries followed in couples, occupying open barouches, and immediately after the feature of the procession—the triumphal car, or pagoda, containing the treaty box . . . . One of Adams’ Express wagons, drawn by six of the finest horses in the city, constituted the vehicle, but so completely was this transformed that it seemed to have been entirely built for the occasion. Nothing of the wagon appeared but the bright painting and silver hubs of the wheels. There was a platform covering all else, profusely decorated with flags and banners, and festoons and wreaths of flowers, the whole surmounted by a canopy, the apex of which was a huge red ball—the Japanese insignia. The interior was carpeted and decorated, and provided with velvet-seated chairs for “Tommy” and his attendants, who guarded the treaty, and in order that none should mistake the affair, the words “Japanese Treaty” were painted on the four sides, together with Japanese inscriptions, doubtless appropriate to the occasion . . . .

To attempt a detailed description of the scenes along the route of the procession would be to multiply the same story for every point from the Battery through Broadway, Grand street, Bowery, around Union-square, down Broadway to the Metropolitan. Everywhere the same eager, jostling, tired, curious crowd, patiently enduring for six hours under a sweltering sun the dangers of coup-de soleil for a view of the display. Of all the public demonstrations yet witnessed by the Japanese, this must have been the most impressive. Everywhere as far as the eye could reach a dense mass of human beings greeted their eyes, while the display of gayly dressed females lent a brilliancy to the scene rarely equalled. Every window, house top, tree, box, awning post, brick pile, fence, and in short every stand point along the route had its tenant; and yet, to the credit of the Police be it said, the procession moved along almost unobstructed through the sea of humanity. At the Museum, the various hotels, the corners of the streets, at Union-square, and at the Metropolitan particularly, the crush was terrible to endure, and fearful to witness.

Nearly two hundred editions of Whitman’s work are in print in the United States. A recent edition of Leaves of Grass, in which ‘A Broadway Pageant’ appears, is available in the US here and in the UK here. The most scholarly edition, the three-volume Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems, edited by Sculley Bradley et al. (New York UP, 1980), is out of print.

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