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Markham The Poet Of The American People

( Originally Published 1916 )


EDWIN MARKHAM and William Dean Howells I have selected as the best representatives of living American spiritual writers because of their work and their influence. In looking over the field of contemporary American authors one is apt to be misled by the ephemeral popularity of certain writers who shrewdly respond to the literary demands of the time. Or he is inclined to give too great prominence to literary skill, as in the case of Henry James, who was acclaimed by leading English and American critics as one of the greatest of our writers, yet whose works are written in a style so involved and so artificial that in my judgment the next generation will refuse to read any of his books except Daisy Miller. The tendency of our own day is toward the undue emphasis of sex problems in literature and on the stage, and so greatly has this warped our literary judgment that the coming generation will be amazed at the popularity of certain books of this period and at the moral decadence of the stage and the decline of good acting. In fact, we have reached the climax of the gross and the vulgar on the stage just as we have neared the limit in the foolish fad of cabaret dancing and the popular mania for moving pictures. These things cannot become permanent without seriously impairing the very fibre of American character. Without a strong reaction from the present rage for indecent plays, foolish or brutal moving pictures and erotic fiction, American life is doomed to a far lower plane than it now occupies. England and France were both being weakened in the same way, when the war came and served as the most drastic check to all literary and social heresies founded on lack of sound moral character.

Edwin Markham I have taken as the foremost of the new writers of our period because of his moral force and his keen sympathy with the struggles of those who work with their hands. Coming up, as he did, from the ranks of manual labor, securing an education by hard work and painful self-denial, he has a feeling for the working classes which no one can share who has not earned his bread in the sweat of his brow. Had he written nothing more than The Man With the Hoe he would have been worthy of a place among the great laureates of labor; but in both prose and verse he has done fine work in helping to secure better conditions in mills and factories, and especially in protecting young children from the selfishness of parents and employers.

Markham's natural method of expression is a free blank verse, which he handles with great ease and power. As he says himself, his thought unconsciously crystallizes in this form of verse, although he is skilful in handling various poetical metres. Before he wrote the poem which suddenly flashed his fame around the world, he had written some fine sonnets and other poems, all of which were tinged with his deep earnestness. Early in his career he was profoundly stirred by a photographic reproduction of Millet's "The Man With the Hoe", and some of the thoughts which it inspired he cast in poetic form. More than a decade later he saw the original painting in the art gallery of a San Francisco millionaire. As Markham himself says:

"Millet's 'The Man With the Hoe' is to me the most solemnly impressive of all modern paintings. As I look upon the august ruin that it pictures I sometimes dare to think that its strength surpasses the power of Michael Angelo. For an hour I stood before the painting, absorbing the majesty of its despair, the tremendous import of its admonition. I stood there, the power and the terror of the thing growing upon my heart, the pity and sorrow of it eating into my soul. It came to me with a dim echo in it of my own life came with its pitiless pathos and mournful grandeur."

Markham was so deeply moved by this study of Millet's picture that he took up his original draft, expanded it, and produced the poem as it stands today. At a meeting of a literary club in San Francisco he read this poem, which so greatly impressed Bailey Millard, then Sunday editor of the San Francisco EXAMINER, that he secured the manuscript for publication in his paper. The day it appeared correspondents of several Eastern newspapers telegraphed it to their journals and it was cabled to London. Markham's name as a world poet was thus flashed over the land and under the sea, and in a single day he found himself famous!

This great poem to my mind the finest thing that has been produced in American literature since the Civil War consists of five stanzas, of which I will quote here the first and fourth, merely to give an idea of the quality of the verse and its large number of unforgetable lines:

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 that brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?

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 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?

Markham is not a poet of occasions, although some of his best work, like his Lincoln, was written for anniversary celebrations. He does not write until the spirit moves him. Hence the gap of more than a decade between his second and third books of verse. He does not always reach the height toward which he aims, but it can be said for his work that it maintains a higher level than the work of any other living American poet. Some may prefer Whitcomb Riley, but to me Markham seems to sound a finer note of a broader humanity than the Hoosier poet, sweet and wholesome and genuine as is all Riley's work. In other words, Markham is what the late Alfred Russell Wallace so aptly called him, "the greatest poet of the Social Passion that has yet appeared in the world."

Markham seems to feel the woes of the heavy-laden as no other poet of our time has felt them. The burden of poverty, the hopelessness of the poor creatures who are always clinging to the slippery edge of the abyss of want and crime, the injustice of fate that keeps some of the finest natures forever in bondage of debt these are the themes which bring forth the lightning of his wrath, the thunder of his scorn. His heart is so moved by the spectacle of the world's unfortunates that he compels the reader's pity and tears. He loses all count of time and space when the spirit moves him. Hence his shortest lyric seems to have the freshness of the first morning, and there is none of the smell of the lamp on any of his work, no matter how careful may be the finish of the verse.

Without apparent effort Markham also seems to select the right word in every line and his rhymes are never awkward nor far-fetched. In fact, when he wears his singing robes and is under the spell of his powerful imagination, language seems to become plastic under his hands. He uses words as the potter uses the clay on-his wheel, with a few deft movements making the shapeless lump take on varied. forms of beauty. This power is seen more signally in Virgilia than in anything Markham has written. That poem breathes inspiration in every line, and it has a sweep of imagination, a wealth of imagery and a rare kind of prophetic power that bears one along to the noble end.

In Virgilia the poet gives a fine conception of the meeting of his first self with his soulmate, the woman who was formed to feed his imagination and to give him courage to struggle against fate, and then of his fruitless quest for her throughout the ages. Here are a few lines from the conclusion of this poem, with the splendid sweep of the verse:

I will go out where the sea-birds travel,
And mix my soul with the wind and the sea;
Let the green waves weave and the gray rains ravel,
And the tides go over me.

The sea is the mother of songs and sorrows,
And out of her wonder our wild loves come;
And so it will be through the long tomorrows,
Till all our lips are dumb.

She knows all sighs and she knows all sinning,
And they whisper out in her breaking wave;
She has known it all since the far beginning,
Since the grief of that first grave.

She shakes the heart with her stars and thunder
And her soft, low word when the winds are late;
For the sea is Woman, the sea is Wonder
Her other name is Fate!

Many of our poets, when they have caught the ear of the public, have hearkened to the voice of the publisher and have put forth poor work. But Markham has written only when the spirit moved him. Hence he has only three books of verse to his credit: The Man With the Hoe and Other Poems, Lincoln and Other Poems and The Shoes of Happiness and Other Poems. Hence, also, there is no mediocre verse in these volumes.

It is not often that a poet has an opportunity to celebrate the State which gave him his inspiration as Markham has celebrated California. Though not born in the Far West, Markham spent all his early impressionable years in the country across the bay from San Francisco. There he learned what it was to earn his bread in the sweat of his brow, and there as a farmer's boy, he stored up those pictures of the heavens and the earth which give distinction to his verse. In California, the Wonderful, Markham has produced a unique book. It gives a mass of information about the resources, the history, the scenic beauty and the marvelous development of the Golden State, but all the prosaic details are touched with poetry. The man who witnessed these wonders was a poet, and he was unable to write this history in any other form than poetical prose. This book was prepared to let the world know what the Panama-Pacific Exposition at San Francisco was designed to commemorate. When the great Exposition was fairly under way, Markham was invited to visit it and to write his impressions. He took the occasion to visit all parts of the State, and the reception that he received was so hearty and so enthusiastic that it quite overcame the modest poet. It showed him that the bard, unlike the prophet, might be honored in his own home.

The poet's other book of prose is Children in Bondage, a startling description of the many American industries in which young children are stunted and ruined, morally and physically, to satisfy the greed of parents and employers.

Markham's hair is white but his eyes are keen and his voice is vibrant with strength and feeling. So we may expect more pomes from his pen that will help the world to live the spiritual life. life.

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