One of the most indignant poems of social protest was written by a quiet teacher, Edwin Markham, born in Oregon City, Oregon, April 23, 1852. Markham grew up in California, worked on a cattle ranch, entered the State Normal School at San Jose, and became a superintendent of schools. Social consciousness was awakening. The world of aristocracy was at war with the world of wealth; in the conflict the worker was the victim. Seeing Millet's painting of a bowed, broken toiler, Markham made the French peasant a symbol of all workers, and wrote THE MAN WITH THE HOE. The poem was immediately successful upon its appearance in the San Fancisco Examiner the last year of the nineteenth century. It was copied in every part of the world. It caught up the passion for social justice that was waiting to be expressed and was hailed as "the battle cry of the next thousand years." Not in protest against toil but against the exploitation of labor, Markhan saw the well-to-do farmer as the Yeoman; but here in the Millet picture, he wrote, "is his opposite: the Hoeman, the landless workman of the world."
The Man with the Hoe
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 urden 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 caverns of Hell to their 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 packt with danger 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, lord 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 all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings--
With those who shaped him to the thing he is--
When this dumb terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?
Once established as a writer, Markham produced a great quantity of verse; but it was unoriginal in subject, undistinguished in style. Readers had come to the regretful conclusion that Markham was the poet of a single poem, when suddenly the author of THE MAN WITH THE HOE published LINCOLN: THE MAN OF THE PEOPLE. Less magniloquent than its predecessor, the Lincoln poem is more compact in thought, more restrained in utterance. THe central image is powerful and the concluding figure is as appropriate as it is eloquent, a truly noble climax.
The poem, selected from more than two hundred tributes to the martyr-President, was read at the dedication ceremonies of the Lincoln Memorial at Washington, D. C., May 30, 1922.
Lincoln, the Man of the People
When the Norn Mother saw the Whirlwind Hour
Greatening and darkening as it hurried on,
She left the Heaven of Heoroes 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,
Dasht through it all a strain of prophecy;
Tempered the heap with thrill of human tears;
Then mixt a laughter with the serious stuff.
Into the shape she breathed a flame to light
That tender, tragic, ever-changing face;
And laid on him a sense of the Mystic Posers,
Moving-all husht-behind the mortal veil,
Here was a man to hold against the world,
A man to match the mountains and the sea.
The color of the ground was in him, the red earth;
The smack and tang of elemental things;
The rectitude and patience of the cliff;
The good-will of the rain that loves all leaves;
The friendly welcome of the wayside well;
The courage of the bird that dares the sea;
The gladness of the wind that shakes the corn;
The pity of the snow that hides all scars;
The secrecy of streams that make their way
Under the maountain to the rifted rock;
The tolerance and equity of light
That gives as freely to the shrinking flower
As to the great oak flaring to the wind--
To the grave's low hill as to the Matterhorn
That shoulders out the sky. Sprung from the West,
He drank the valorous youth of a new world.
The strength of virgin forests braced his mind,
The hush of spacious prairies stilled his soul.
His words were oaks in acorns; and his thoughts
Were roots that firmly gript the graite truth.
Up from log cabin to the Capitol,
One fire was on his spirit, one resolve--
To send the keen ax to the root of wrong,
Clearing a free way for the feet of God,
The eyes of conscience testing every stroke,
To make his deed the measure of a man.
He built the rail-pile as he built the State,
Pouring his splendid strength through every blow;
The grip that swung the ax in Illinois
Was on the pen that set a people free.
So came the Captain with the mighty heart.
And when the judgment thunders split the house,
Wrenching the rafters from their ancient rest,
He held the ridgepole up, and spiked again
The rafters of the Home. He held his place--
Held the long purpose like a growing tree--
Held on through blame and faltered not at praise.
And when he fell in whirlwind, he went down
As when a lordly cedar, green with boughs,
Goes down with a great shout upon the hills,
And leaves a lonesome, place against the sky.
In his late forties Markham came East and made his home on Staten Island, Rugged and patriarchal, he overcame criticism and illness. He grew more beautiful with age; someone said tha Markham in his seventies looked like a composite picture of all the New England poets. A more cautious admirer observed him as "a deity dispossessed and declining on a suburban Olympus." His life spanned the continent. Born near one ocean, Markham died facing the other, at eighty-eight, March 7, 1940.
I disagree with the critic's remarks about Markham's other poems. They speak
loving advice on dealing gently with others. They are the words of a
faithful and humble man, instead of a jaded and arrogant snob.
I plan to post more of his poetry later.
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