Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1246
First published: 1921
Type of work: Novelette
Type of plot: Exotic romance
Time of work: Thirteenth century
Locale: Venice and China
Marco Polo, the Venetian
Kubla Khan, Emperor of China
Golden Bells, Kubla Khan’s daughter
Li Po, the court poet
Sanang, the court magician
On the first night of spring, young Marco Polo deserted his work in his father’s countinghouse and wandered restlessly through the streets of Venice. He entered a wineshop in the hope of talking with some of the foreign people gathered there. The people inside were gambling and drinking, except for one man who sat by himself at a table. Marco recognized him as a Chinese sea captain and sat down to talk to him. In a friendly argument over the merits of their native countries, the sea captain got the better of young Marco by describing the beauty of Golden Bells, the daughter of Kubla Khan.
From that night on, the image of Golden Bells haunted Marco Polo. When his father and uncle, Nicholas and Matthew Polo, returned from China, Marco told them that he wished to go with them on their next trip. Kubla Khan had told the Polos to bring a Christian missionary back with them from Venice, and they chose young Marco to play the part. He was delighted, for he had convinced himself that it was his mission to convert Golden Bells to Christianity.
The wise old Pope gave his blessing to Marco as he started out for China, but he warned the young man not to expect to convert many pagans. Marco, his uncle, and his father set out with their camel caravan for the court of Kubla Khan. On the way, Marco saw many strange countries and cities. At last, the travelers came to the Desert of the Singing Sands. Many deserted or died until there were only six of the caravan left. When a great sandstorm came upon them, Marco struggled until his strength gave out and he lay down to die.
Meanwhile, Golden Bells sat in the garden of Kubla Khan and talked with Li Po, the court poet. Sanang, the court magician, joined them. He told Golden Bells that he could see the troubles of Marco Polo in his crystal ball. Golden Bells felt pity for the young man and begged Sanang to save him from death in the Desert of the Singing Sands. Through his magic power, Sanang called upon the Tartar tribesmen to rescue Marco. Golden Bells was joyful when the old magician assured her that the young man had been saved. Li Po smiled and said he would write a marriage song for her. She said that she was in love with no one, but she refused to sing any more the sad “Song of the Willow Branches.”
The desert tribesmen brought Marco before Kubla Khan and Golden Bells. The emperor asked him to tell something about the Christian religion. Marco quoted the Beatitudes and related the life of Christ, but Kubla Khan and his court were not impressed by the story of gentleness and love. Golden Bells alone, of all the court, told Marco that she was his convert.
Marco began to instruct Golden Bells and told her all the Bible stories he knew. She was charmed by his voice. He tried to explain to her what sin was, but she could not believe that the beauty of a woman was a curse. Finally, when he had told her all he knew of Christianity, he spoke of returning to Venice. Golden Bells was heartbroken. At last, Marco took her in his arms.
They lived happily for three years; then Golden Bells died. Marco remained for fourteen years in the service of the emperor. One evening, Kubla Khan came to Marco with Li Po and Sanang and told him that he should return to Venice, for some of the people in the land were jealous of Marco’s power. It was for his own good that he should return.
Marco refused to go. He did not wish to leave the place where he had been happy. Only a sign from the dead Golden Bells would make him leave. Then Sanang cast a magic spell, and Li Po sang a magic song. A ghostly moonlight appeared at the end of the palace garden, and there, slim in the moonlight, stood Golden Bells. With her pleading eyes and soundless lips, she begged Marco to return to Venice; then she disappeared. Marco was overcome with grief, but he promised to go. As he took leave of his three old friends, he said that he was going home to be an exile in his own land. The sunshine and the rain of China and the memory of Golden Bells would be always in his heart.
Donn Byrne called himself “the last of the Irish storytellers.” His adversaries, of whom he had many, called him a synthetic “professional Irishman.” There is truth in both views. Byrne was indeed Irish by parentage, upbringing, and sentiment, although he was born during a parental visit to Brooklyn. Well-educated in Dublin and abroad, he first sought adventure in South America, dreaming that he might become famous as a cowboy poet; but soon he moved to New York.
Although critically praised, his first works sold poorly, and for some years he scraped for a living, first in a garage and then on a series of newspapers; he finally put his considerable erudition to work as a lexicographer. Fiercely combative for the Orange cause, he was in constant conflict with the Sinn Fein sympathizers in New York, and he was involved with equal passion in the many literary disputes of the time.
MESSER MARCO POLO brought the author fame and some fortune in 1920, but his reckless generosity and extravagance soon forced him to flee his creditors. He traveled widely during his last years and continued to write prolifically. On one night in 1928, he won enough money at a casino in Cannes to buy a castle in Cork, but he was killed in an automobile accident shortly after his return to Ireland.
There may well have been elements of the synthetic in Byrne’s lifelong performance as a wild Irish “boyo,” but in regard to his writing, there is no problem: art is synthetic by definition, and the only relevant question is whether it works. MESSER MARCO POLO works extremely well. The narrator’s Irish allusions, locutions and—most poignantly—his rhythms transform a thin tale into a romantic fantasy that evokes the glamor of virtually every exotic name or place from Venice to Peking with remarkable wit and economy. Byrne unerringly strikes the appropriate tones of humor and pathos throughout his novel. Its stylistic beauty and its exquisite folk descriptions of setting and character make this one of the best modern romances.
A mixture of three elements gives this simple tale a unique flavor. A modern Irishman tells the adventures of a Christian Italian in pagan China. Irish mysticism mingles with the mystery of the East to produce a romantic and tragic love story based upon the visit of Marco Polo to the court of Kubla Khan. The author succeeds in bringing together, in one framework, folktale, history, and imagination. His simple narrative style is of a kind very rarely found among modern authors; it suggests the fireside stories and poems of the past that passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.