by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
In pursuit of poetic history for National Poetry Month, I’ve dipped into the dusty past to look at a poet who was once an international figure in literary circles, but whose work has dwindled in the narrow eyes of Fame to a single poem, sometimes found in chronological anthologies: The Man With a Hoe.
Today’s reader will cringe at a lot of the other poetry that Edwin Markham (1852 – 1940) penned. The hackneyed phrases, and especially the intrusion of ‘The Poet’ into the middle of his own poems, mark many of them as second-rate or derivative.
However, in some of his short poems, there are flashes of the poet who wrote a poem that has endured. The Man With a Hoe, in its day, actually furthered the Socialist Labor Movement. It caused much discussion among the reading public about the working poor, and a feeling that something ought to be done about their plight.
She comes as hush and beauty of the night,
And sees too deep for laughter;
Her touch is a vibration and a light
From worlds before and after.
This the poem that brought the 46-year-old Markham into sudden prominence, after years of poems that met with limited success. It seems timely again, given the ever-increasing gap between the Haves and the Have Nots, and the desperate struggle for survival faced by millions of refugees.
The Man with the Hoe
Written after seeing Millet’s World-Famous Painting
God made man in His own image,
in the image of God made He him. —Genesis.
Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave
To have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power;
To feel the passion of Eternity?
Is this the Dream He dreamed who shaped the suns
And marked their ways upon the ancient deep?
Down all the stretch of Hell to its last gulf
There is no shape more terrible than this —
More tongued with censure of the world’s blind greed —
More filled with signs and portents for the soul —
More fraught with menace to the universe.
What gulfs between him and the seraphim!
Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him
Are Plato and the swing of Pleiades?
What the long reaches of the peaks of song,
The rift of dawn, the reddening of the rose?
Through this dread shape the suffering ages look;
Time’s tragedy is in that aching stoop;
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned and disinherited,
Cries protest to the Judges of the World,
A protest that is also prophecy.
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
Is this the handiwork you give to God,
This monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched?
How will you ever straighten up this shape;
Touch it again with immortality;
Give back the upward looking and the light;
Rebuild in it the music and the dream;
Make right the immemorial infamies,
Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes?
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the Future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings —
With those who shaped him to the thing he is —
When this dumb Terror shall reply to God,
After the silence of the centuries?
Markham’s poem, Lincoln, Man of the People, was chosen over 249 others submitted for consideration to be read at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on May 30, 1922. This is the opening stanza:
When the Norn Mother saw the Whirlwind Hour
Greatening and darkening as it hurried on,
She left the Heaven of Heroes and came down
To make a man to meet the mortal need.
She took the tried clay of the common road—
Clay warm yet with the genial heat of Earth,
Dashed through it all a strain of prophecy;
Tempered the heap with thrill of human tears;
Then mixed a laughter with the serious stuff.
Into the shape she breathed a flame to light
That tender, tragic, ever-changing face.
Here was a man to hold against the world,
A man to match the mountains and the sea.
It was popular enough at the time, but for me, it is hopelessly dated and bears little resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. Compare it to the opening text for Aaron Copeland’s Lincoln Portrait:
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.”
That is what he said. That is what Abraham Lincoln said.
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility.”
He was born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and lived in Illinois. And this is what he said. This is what Abe Lincoln said.
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we will save our country.”
Of course it’s a lot easier to use Lincoln’s own works to portray him – Lincoln was certainly one of the most eloquent writers ever to grace the White House – but Markham could as easily be describing Beowulf, for all his poem tells us about Abraham Lincoln.
These are a few of his poems that do speak to me. I think he’s at his best when dealing with nature and friendship.
The little pool, in street or field apart,
Glasses deep heavens and the rushing storm;
And into silent depths of every heart,
The Eternal throws its awful shadow-form
Two at a Fireside
I built a chimney for a comrade old,
. . . . . I did the service not for hope or hire –
And then I traveled on in winter’s cold,
. . . . .Yet all the day I glowed before the fire.
A Song at the Start
Oh, down the quick river our galley is going,
With a sound in the cordage, abeam on the sail:
The wind of the canyon our loose hair is blowing,
And the clouds of the morning are glad of the gale.
Around the swift prow little billows are breaking,
And flinging their foam in a glory of light:
Now the shade of a rock on the river is shaking,
And a wave leaps high up growing suddenly white.
The weight of the whole world is light as a feather,
And peaks rise in silence and westerly flee:
Oh, the world and the poet are singing together,
And from the far cliff comes a sound of the sea.
Joy of the Morning
I hear you, little bird,
Shouting aswing above the broken wall.
Shout louder yet: no song can tell it all.
Sing to my soul in the deep still wood:
‘Tis wonderful beyond the wildest word:
I’d tell it, too, if I could.
Oft when the white, still dawn
Lifted the skies and pushed the hills apart,
I’ve felt it like a glory in my heart –
(The world’s mysterious stir)
But had no throat like yours, my bird,
Nor such a listener.
There is a destiny that makes us brothers:
None goes his way alone:
All that we send into the lives of others
Comes back into our own.
I care not what his temples or his creeds,
One thing holds firm and fast
That into his fateful heap of days and deeds
The soul of man is cast.
In the Storm
I huddled close against the mighty cliff,
A sense of safety and of brotherhood
Broke on the heart: the shelter of a rock
Is sweeter than the roofs of all the world.
Edwin Markham was born Charles Edwin Markham in Oregon when it was still a territory. His parents divorced when he was a small boy, and he moved with his mother, brothers and sisters to a farm in central California. He disliked the hard labor of the farm. Frustrated by his mother’s refusal to buy him books, or pay for his education, he left home at fifteen until his mother agreed he could attend Vacaville College, where he earned a teacher’s certificate. After teaching in California for several years and taking courses in the Classics at Christian College in Santa Rosa, Markham became superintendent of schools at Placerville, a town founded during the California Gold Rush, about 45 miles from Sacramento.
In 1876 Markham left his mother’s Methodist faith, and became a follower of the controversial spiritualist and utopian socialist Thomas Lake Harris. Harris’s doctrine, which espoused social harmony and universal charity, became a major force in Markham’s life. Markham was writing poetry as early as 1872, but he did not sell his first poem until 1880. For the next nineteen years, he contributed poems to Harper’s, Century, and Scribner’s, and began to make the acquaintance of American literary figures like Ambrose Bierce and Hamlin Garland.
He went by “Charles” until about 1895, but when he was in 40s, he started using “Edwin.”
He was married three times. The first marriage failed when he had an affair; his second wife, Caroline, moved out when his mother joined the household. After Caroline’s death, Markham wed Anna Murphy in 1898, and this marriage was a success.
In the last week of December 1898, Markham wrote The Man With a Hoe. It was first published in the San Francisco Examiner on January 15, 1899, and quickly republished in newspapers across the country. With his new-found celebrity, Markham was in demand for readings and lectures, and was able to travel.
Although his poetry became decidedly less accepted by the critics, his popularity with the public continued until his death. His distinguished appearance— tall, with a nobly bearded face — impressed many as the ideal of a great American poet. On his 80th birthday, there was a celebration at Carnegie Hall. President Hoover attended, and thirty-five nations sent representatives to honor him.
In 1936 Markham suffered a debilitating stroke from which he never fully recovered; he died at his home on Staten Island, New York, on March 7, 1940.
When Edwin Markham asked the question in The Man With a Hoe: “How will the Future reckon with this Man?” he had no way of knowing that it could be applied to his own life; that first, the Future would make him famous, and then, it would leave him forgotten.
Sources and Biography
- Poem Hunter: https://www.poemhunter.com/edwin-markham/
- Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/edwin-markham
- Academy of American Poets: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/edwin-markham
- The Man With the Hoe and Other Poems (1899)
- Lincoln and Other Poems (1901)
- The Shoes of Happiness and Other Poems (1913)
- Gates of Paradise (1920)
- Eighty Songs at Eighty (1932)
- The Ballad of the Gallows Bird (published 1960)
- Children in Bondage (1914)
- California the Wonderful (1914)
- Night Sky, Ashland Montana
- Man With a Hoe, by Jean-François Millet
- The Norns
- Rain puddle
- Rustic fireplace
- Siberian river
- Gnatcatcher singing
- Clasped hands on tombstone
- Rocky overhang
- Edwin Markham
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud