Margaret Veley

A Japanese Fan (1876)

How time flies! Have we been talking
For an hour?
Have we been so long imprisoned
By the shower
In this old oak-panelled parlour?
Is it noon?
Don’t you think the rain is over
Rather soon?

Since the heavy drops surprised us,
And we fled
Here for shelter, while it darkened
Since we leaned against the window,
Saw the flash
Of the lightning, heard the rolling
Thunder crash;
You have looked at all the treasures
Gathered here,
Out of other days, and countries
Far and near;
At those glasses, thin as bubbles,
Opal bright—
At the carved and slender chessmen,
Red and white—
At the long array of china
Cups and plates—
(Do you really understand them?
Names and dates?)
At the tapestry, where dingy
Shepherds stand,
Holding grim and faded damsels
By the hand—
All the while my thoughts were busy
With the fan
Lying here—bamboo and paper,
From Japan.
It is nothing—very common—
Be it so;
Do you wonder why I prize it—
Care to know?
Shall I teach you all the meaning,
The romance
Of the picture you are scorning
With a glance?

From Japan! I let my fancy
Swiftly fly;
No if we set sail to-morrow,
You and I,
If the waves were liquid silver,
Fair the breeze,
If we reached that wondrous island
O’er the seas,
Should we find that every woman
Was so white,
And had slender upward eyebrows
Black as night?
Should we then perhaps discover
Why, out there,
People spread a mat to rest on
In mid air?

Here’s a lady, small of feature,
With her hair of ebon straightness
Queerly tied.
In her hand are trailing flowers
Rosy sweet,
And her silken robe is muffed
Round her feet.
She looks backward with a conscious
Kind of grace,
As she steps from off the carpet
Into space;
Though she plants her foot on nothing
Does not fall,
And in fact appears to heed it
Not at all.
See how calmly she confronts us
Standing there—
Will you say she is not lovely?
Do you dare?
I will not! I honour beauty
Where I can,
Here’s a woman one might die for!
—In Japan.

Read the passion of her lover—
All his soul
Hotly poured in this fantastic
Little scroll.
See him swear his love, and vengeance,
Read his fate—
You don’t understand the language?
I’ll translate.

“Long ago,” he says, “when summer,
Filled the earth
With its beauty, with the brightness
Of its mirth;
When the leafy boughs were woven
Far above;
In the noonday I beheld her—
Her—my love!
Oftentimes I met her, often
Saw her pass,
With her dusky raiment trailing
On the grass.
I would follow, would approach her,
Dare to speak,
Till at last the sudden colour
Flushed her cheek.
“Through the sultry heat we lingered
In the shade;
And the fan of pictured paper
That she swayed,
Seemed to mark the summer’s pulses,
Soft and slow,
And to thrill me as it wavered
To and fro.
For I loved her, loved her, loved her,
And its beat
Set my passion to a music
Strangely sweet.

“Sunset came, and after sunset,
When the dusk
Filled the quiet house with shadows;
And the musk,
From the dim and dewy garden
Where it grows,
Mixed its perfume with the jasmine
And the rose;
When the western splendour faded,
And the breeze
Went its way, with good-night whispers
Through the trees,
Leaning out, we watched the dying
Of the light,
Till the bats came forth with sudden
Ghostly flight.
They were shadows, wheeling, flitting
Round my joy,
While she spoke, and while her slender
Hands would toy
With her fan, which, as she swayed it
Might have been
Fairy wand, or fitting sceptre
For a queen.
When she smiled at me, half pausing
In her play,
All the dusk of gathering twilight
Turned to day!

“Though to talk too much of heaven
Is not well—
Though agreeable people never
Mention hell—
Yet the woman who betrayed me
—Whom I kissed—
In that bygone summer taught me
Both exist.
I was ardent, she was always
Wisely cool,
So my lady played the traitor,
I—the fool”——
Oh, your pardon! But remember
If you please,
I’m translating—this is only

“Japanese?” you say, and eye me
Half in doubt;
Let us have the lurking question
Spoken out.
Is all this about the lady
Really said
In that little square of writing
Near her head?—
I will answer, on my honour,
As I can,
Every syllable is written
On the fan.
Yes—and you could learn the language
Very soon—
Shall I teach you some August

You are wearied. There is little
Left to say;
For the disappointed hero
Goes his way,
And such pain and rapture never
More will know—
But he smiles—all this was over
Long ago.
I am not a blighted being—
Scarcely grieve—
I can laugh, make love, do most things
But believe!

Yet the old days come back strangely
As I stand,
With the fan she swayed so softly
In my hand,
I can almost see her, touch her,
Hear her voice,
Till, afraid of my own madness,
I rejoice
That beyond my help or harming
Is her fate—
Past the reach of passion—is it
Love—or hate?

This is tragic! Are you laughing?
So am I!
Let us go—the clouds have vanished
From the sky.
You’ll forget this cursed folly?
Time it ceased,
For you do not understand me
In the least.
You have smiled and sighed politely,
Quite at ease,
—And my story might as well be

Margaret Veley (1843-1887) was ‘a poetess who has scarcely received the credit she deserved’, according to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (NY: Putnam’s Sons, 1907-21; NY:, 2000 []). That source, in its ‘Lesser Poets of the Middle and Later Nineteenth Century’ section, calls Veley’s monograph A Japanese Fan her ‘chief work’ and ‘something of a positive masterpiece of quiet ironic passion’, and finds that its title poem ‘deserve[s] an honourable place among the phantasmagorias in irregular Pindaric which have formed a great feature of later nineteenth-century poetry’. Certainly the point about Veley not receiving credit is correct: no record of this Japanese Fan exists in OCLC or any other major bibliographical database. ‘The Japanese Fan’ appeared in volume 34 of Cornhill Magazine.

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