The Ballad of Marco Polo

Stephen Vincent Benét

I stumbled across this poem in a 10th grade literary anthology (possibly this one ?) At the time, I was in the short-lived habit of typing up poems I liked, so this one got saved to my old family computer, along with a few other favorites. I found it a few years later and was equally charmed, and looked it up to see what other information I could gather. But despite SVB’s significant legacy, the poem itself is barely documented anywhere online - at the moment, just a handful of citations referencing the original issue of the Atlantic Monthly in which it was published.

I’m no literary academic, but I haven’t had luck finding any scholarly traces of it either; in fact, it didn’t even appear in any of the Benét anthologies I’ve looked through. I’m reproducing it here because I’m utterly fond of it - probably more so because I’ve constructed a bit of a mystery in my head about its lack of notoriety - and feel it should have a bit more attention and web presence. If you know something about the poem, or enjoyed it as much as I do, please be in touch. (I hear from about one person a year, and it’s a treat!)


Marco Polo, curious man,
What drove you to seek that Kublai Khan?

Perhaps it was youth, for I was young,
Perhaps it was my father’s tongue
The desert hawk I had never seen
Till the years of my age were turned fifteen,
For I was not born when he went away
To trade beyond the rim of day,
And, when he returned, we were strange and shy,
Meeting each other, he and I,
For a lost bride’s eyes looked out at him,
My mother’s, who died in bearing me,
And the lines of his visage were great and grim
And I knew he had been in Tartary.

Marco Polo, how did it fall
That at last you followed him, after all?

When the world shut in with candlelight,
They would talk to each other, night on night,
While the water lapped at the landing stair
And they hardly knew that I was there
Except as a shadow the candle threw
When the wind before the morning blew
And the great house creaked like a ship of stone,
Maffeo and Nicolo,
Talking of marvels past reknown,
Talking of wonders still to do -
Their talk was honey and wine and snow
How could I help but drink it down?
How could I help but thirst and burn,
When the opened the bag of camel’s hair
And looked at the marvel hidden there
And said, “It is time and we must return?”

Marco Polo, what did you see,
When at length you came to Tartary?

I know I have been where I have been,
But how can I tell you what I have seen?
I know the desert of the dry tree
Whose branches bear eternity,
And the hot sickness of the noon.
I drank the mare’s milk of the tents,
I saw the musk ox gape at me,
I have had gold and frankincense
And silks that glitter like the moon,
But what can I tell you that will make you see?
Marco Polo, wandering sword
What manner of man did you call lord?
I have been the pope’s and doge’s man,
But I never knew master like Kublai Khan.
The sons of his body sit ten by ten
At buffets of precious napery,
When he hunts, he hunts with ten thousand men
And his Tartar falcons darken the sky,
He has jewels uncounted and golden plate
Whence even his meanest slaves may eat,
And he sits and numbers the hairs of fate
With a great, tame lion crouched at his feet,
And his mercy as fair as a white ram’s fleece,
Mighty in battle and just in peace,
Star of the city of Kanbalu,
Khan of Khans and Great of the Great
Whose bounty falls like the morning dew -
Since Adam delved and Eve span
Who ever saw a prince like Kublai Khan?

Marco Polo, tell me how
Your Venice talks of your travels now?

They call me braggart, they call me liar,
They gawk at me like an eater of fire,
‘Millions’ Polo, the fable-monger,
Such being his custom in Cathay.
But they laughed with their beards another way,
When we came back in ‘95
Like ghosts returned to a world alive,
With our gear still smelling of musk and civet
And my father’s beard grown whiter than privet,
Two old men and a younger one
Who had looked in the eye of the Eastern sun.
And lived - and lived to tell the tale
Which I tell to the shadows in this, my jail.
Why, my very cousins did not own us
And the jeering crowd was ready to stone us
Till we ripped the riches out of our rags
And proved we were Polos - by moneybags!

Let them laugh as long as they like today!
I have seen Cathay, I have seen Cathay!
Their little Europe - their dwarfish West -
Their doge with his ring and marriage fee!
I have stolen the eggs from the phoenix nest
And walked by the shores of the Ocean-Sea,
The earth-encircler, the Asian main,
And, if Kublai lived, I would go again,
For what is their quarrel of gimcrack lords,
Their toy fleets sailing a herring pond,
By the might that mastered the Tartar hordes?
There are worlds beyond, there are worlds beyond,
Worlds to be conquered, worlds to be found,
By river and desert and burning ground,
Even, perchance, by the Ocean-Sea,
If a man has courage enough to dare,
And I know that others will follow me
And I mark the roads that will take them there,
The roads of the golden caravan,
The whole great East in its roaring youth,
For - there was a prince named Kublai Khan -
And I, the liar, have told the truth.