A Letter From Peking Poem by Harriet Monroe
October I5th, 1910.
My friend, dear friend, why should I hear your voice
Over the Babel of voices, suddenly
Calling as from the new world to the old?
Hush!—are you weary? would you follow me?
Would you make dark the house, and shut the door,
Summon steam-pacing trains, wave-racing ships,
To bear you past the high assembled nations—
Past the loud cries, the plucking hands of the age—
Even to the East that drowses on her throne?
Come then—it's good to be alive today;
For yesterday is dead, and dim tomorrow
Flits like a ghost before us, threatening
Our peering eyes with mistily flapping wings.
Grandly the streets loom upward; huge skyscrapers
Catch at the glory of the sunrise, wear
The morning like a mantle, bare their heads
In praise and prayer. And with us on the pavement,
Above us in the air there, and below,
Under our feet, by train and tram and subway,
The people bear the burden of the age—
Each to his work, each to his love, his dream,
The little secret vision of his soul,
Veiled, muffled, trampled, baffled, but agleam:
Our people, eager to work, eager to laugh,
Eager to love—if but to love were easy,
Pausing not for the slow and difficult thing
As they push past their neighbors to the goal.
Now to the ship—down the long crowded wharves,
The tangle of souls and voices threading thinly
Through the slight gangway. Do you see her there—
Huge, black, incredible, fortress-walled in steel,
Hiding her heart of fire? She has no fear;
The fierce waves leap at her, the arrogant storms
Tease at her flying heels, the boastful winds
Front her in vain. Superb, invincible,
From world to world, over the ravenous ocean
Grandly she bears the fruitage of the time:
Rich fields of corn, mill-yields of goods, long train-loads
Of strong machines, man's hope and love and power
Sealed in a million letters, and at last
Even us, the little human mustard seeds—
Dark earth-specks with the kingdom of heaven within.
Gaily we tread the deck, softly we sleep,
Lightly we chatter away the idle days,
While strong hands, from dark hold to sunny mast,
Do our enormous tasks. And now at last
The world again, low chalky cliffs, the shore,
Parked England silvery green, her viny casements
And dewy lawns, her iron towns of toil
Smoke-bound, unfree. And London, stony London,
Gray storehouse of the heaped-up centuries,
Of hidden sins and valors, locked-in joys;
London the empire-hearted, grave with cares
Under her tawny sky that dulls the sun.
We linger not—swiftly the new age runs
And he must haste who takes her by the hand.
Over the Channel! Come! the little houses
And patchwork fields of France. Paris fullblown,
The red red rose of the world, whose golden heart
Lies bare to the greedy sun, whose petals droop
Ever so softly to the falling time,
Most lovely at the signal hour of change.
Germany then, the little patterned cities
Of the old time swept, garnished for the new;
The ancient halls hung with the ancient art,
And musical with high-stringed orchestras
Playing melodious prophecies; gay Berlin,
Garish, unmellowed, pale, but full of hope,
And proud desire.
Ah whither do they march,
These nations with the sweat upon their brows,
Huge burden-bearers, panoplied in steel,
Facing bleak mists of doubt? Will they cast
down Their heavy fears and bathe their brows in light
And freely run across the fields of dawn—
Children of joy, blood brothers born in love,
Valiant for peace as once for murderous war?
Nearer they draw, trimly the sharp rails cut
Their boundaries—twin scissor-blades of fate.
Swift steamers tie their ports together, bring
Tourist ambassadors from state to state.
Bold man-birds fly through the unsentineled air,
And cobweb wires invisible, more strong
Than chains of steel, are spun from tower to tower,
Bridging the oceans, linking capitals,
Binding men's hearts. O kings of the peopled earth,
O men, rulers of kings, dare you resist
Warriors of science, who are blazing trails
Your statesmenship must travel to new goals?
Laggards, beware lest the advancing myriads,
Bound for the promised land, trample you down!
Dark Russia, standing at the Asian gate,
Questions us with her eastward-peering eyes.
Proud Moscow from her hundred towers looks out—
Moscow, bejeweled with domes, magnificent,
Out of her past barbaric gazes far
Into the future, swings her Kremlin portal
To show the sad Siberian wilderness,
And bids us follow through the autumnal days.
Softly we slip along the garnered fields,
Past clustered villages, low-thatched and brown,
Each with a gay church gilded; shimmer down
The shining Urals, and salute at last
Great Asia where in solitude she waits
Under the northern star.
Her forest then,
Level and low; dark little pines, thin birches
Their leaves all golden on the silver stems.
And square-faced peasants crowding to the train,
Slow, sleepy-eyed, thick-bearded. Onward still
Through the stark plains; Baikal blue in its mountains,
The home of wheeling birds that dive and soar.
And by and by a dragon-guarded roof
With gay beasts perched along its tips, that lift
Like the slim corner of a pale new moon
Poised in the sky at sunset.
We have come
To the first gate of the world. The still Pacific
Glitters between the hills. Dark crowds astare
Greet us with chatter and laughter—beardless men
With shaven brows and long thin tasseled braids,
Clad in dim blue under the darkening sun.
The obliterating night curtains our eyes,
And when at last the red dawn draws the veil
A heavy wall looms over us gray and stern
With towered gates fortress-guarded. And our engine,
Steaming and shrieking past the caravans—
The shaggy ponies, little loaded asses,
The slow process camels pacing down—
Scatters the dust of time, pierces the wall,
And pauses under the shadow of yellow roofs
Where the Forbidden City, wide and still,
Lies dreaming in her sunrise-slanted woods.
Peking! She faces us with marble eyes
Inscrutable. She hearkens to our noise
And guards her secret. Shall we win her over—
We with our guns, our dark machines, our mansions
High piled over her lowly curving roofs;
We with our loud commands? Will she arise,
Weary of silence, wave her yellow flag,
Summon her myriads for the modern race,
The huge new tasks, the war for love and light?
Hush! If we wait and listen, will she speak,
Wise woman or child, veiled queen of the dragon throne?
Softly! No steamer, elbowing storms aside,
No engine nosing through the ancient wall,
No hurrying foot, no soul worn or at war,
Shall penetrate the Circle and the Square,
Set with sweet woods, the green wall and the blue,
And touch the three rings of the Temple of Heaven,
The terraced marble seat, cloud-carved and fair,
Where, at the Centre of the Earth, in peace,
The tranquil East, contemplative, serene,
Dwells with the sun and moon.
Hush—bare your head
And strip your spirit free. When you have won
The ultimate Wisdom, seek the wingèd portal
Once more. Then she, the sage, may rise to you,
Hold converse with you, pilgrim of the age,
And take you to her heart and bless your gifts,
And be as one with you forevermore.
Harriet Monroe's Other Poems
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