Laurence Binyon

Koya San (1932)

High on the mountain, shrouded in vast trees,
The stillness had the chastity of frost.
I trod the fallen pallors of the moon.
The path was paven stone: I was not lost,
But followed whither it should lead me soon
Into the mountain’s midmost secrecies.

Wandering into the mind, sweet, luminous, warm
Remembrances of the body,—
Smell of the woods in the irradiated noonday,
Flushes of foliage,
The ridged horizon opening far and blue,—
Came with a breathing of colour, and then sank
Remote as flames gleam in a dark pane glassed.
Earth had rolled onward into regions new,
And all the darkness at my senses drank,
Aware now, subtly, as of a frontier passed.

On either side the trees unending rose.
No shadowy sound stirred amid all their plumes.
Each seemed a separate and a soaring night,
Black canopies of cold uncounted tombs.
Pilgrims had here fallen on their repose:
Graven with names, their tablets gleamed upright.

And softly as the fallen lightness of a willow-leaf
On the liquid stealing
Of water unrippled, profound, my spirit was stolen
By the crystal silence.
And with me it seemed invisible others went,
Spirits unhistoried, of such dim surmise
As in the dark the tremble of a leaf.
With them I went, and Night was eloquent
Of things that are not in the day’s belief,
And made me of those things, like a blind man, wise.

Obscurity at last relented round
A glimmering space: the inmost Shrine appeared.
Before it, motionless as any tree,
Praying, a pilgrim stood. There was a sound
Of water in the distance hardly heard:
But most that living man astonished me.

Many stone lanterns made a clustered shining
As if in a wondrous
Cavern of lost and intricate shadows, enclosing
The light’s clear vigil;
But the air behind that solitary form
Was trembling like a veil of trembling light,
Where from an urn rose endless incense-fume
That left a ghostly fragrance on the night.
It seemed a spirit sighing to resume
The touch of what was breathing, human, warm.

Bare-headed, sandalled, still that pilgrim prayed,
Unconscious of all else but his heart’s prayer.
Out of his breast a broken murmur deep
Came with his frosted breathing on the air
Before the shrine in its tree-guarded shade
Where that great Saint continued in his sleep.

It seemed that from Time’s beginning he had stood there
In a hushed vastness,
Solitary, erect, amid the unimagined motion
Of worlds unnumbered,
Absorbed, secure in his small star of light.
And now that ceaseless, fugitive frail smoke
Appeared to me like shadowy souls in flight
Woven together into a veil of breath
That wavered as their little life awoke
And passed for ever into birth or death.

What prayer was his that mingled with the mist
Of the forgotten sighings of the dead?
I knew not; yet in him I seemed to share
Longings that still were patient to persist
Through Time and Death from lips that once were red.
In that one image all my kind stood there.
Lover of the body, lover of the divine sun,
Of earth’s replenished
Fullness and change and savour of life rejoicing
Careless of all care,
Me now the Silence for its vessel chose
And filled from wells unsounded by the mind.
No other need I had, and could not less
Than to be wholly to this spell resigned
And dark communion with the spirit that knows
Vigil and frost and solitariness.

Fragments we are, and none has seen the whole.
Only some moment wins us to restore
The touch of infinite companionship.
I that had journeyed from so far a shore
Found at the world’s end the same pilgrim soul,
And the old sorrow, no flight can outstrip.

Now in the midst of the irradiated noonday
Suddenly absent,
While in my ear is the sound of familiar voices,
Light talk and laughter,
My thought has in an instant flown the seas;
A great remoteness occupies my heart;
And there arises on my inward sight
The shadowy apparition of vast trees.
A pathway opens; I am stolen apart,
And I ascend a mountain in the night.



Binyon’s note added in a 1941 reprint:

Koya San (Mount Koya) is a sacred mountain near Osaka in Japan. On it are many temples, and at the top is a cemetery surrounding the grave of the famous Buddhist saint Kobo, before whose shrine a light perpetually burns.


For an overview of Binyon’s relation with Japan see Laurence Binyon and Japan in the Bibliography. ‘Koya San’ (BC24a) appeared in the limited-edition Koya San: Four Poems from Japan (BC24) and was reprinted in The North Star and Other Poems (London: Macmillan, 1941).

Binyon titles in print include only three of his many volumes related to Japan, Painting in the Far East (BC2, available in the UK here), Japanese Colour Prints (BC17, available here), and Godstow Nunnery (see BC22, available here).






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