blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

"Edwin Markham: Poet of Democracy"--A 1914 Essay on Markham

The Poet and His Childhood -- In the University of Nature -- Influence of Great Books Upon the Child's Mind -- The Struggle for an Education -- Two Teachers Who Aided Him -- His Academic Education -- Educational Work in California -- His Marriage -- Removes to the East -- His Principal Works.

Edwin Markham, democracy's greatest poet, is the reflector of the mighty spiritual undercurrent of our age. He represents the new conscience and the broadening spiritual ideals of our wonderful age.

In the course of a delightful evening spent with the poet, he gave me some intimate reminiscences of his childhood.

"I was born," he said, "in 1852, in Oregon City, on the picturesque Willamette. Among my earliest recollections was my mother's store, often frequented by the Indians, who were among her best customers; a store that stood almost under the shadow of the tall bluffs that rise behind the town. I was at that time between four and five years old, and I had a little playmate, Maggie Kilburn, who lived in a little yellow house. We used to wander on the river bank, gathering shells and watching the waterfalls that were directly in front of the town. The wonder and beauty of those falls took hold of me even then, for I recall the impressions most vividly. A little later I went to the mountains to live for a time with a brother, and among the pictures photographed on my mind at that time is that of my father coming home one night with a deer on his back. My father was a mountaineer, a silent man, a deeply religious nature with a dash of mysticism."

The poet paused, enthralled by the retrospective spell, while the pageant of long-vanished scenes, with dream-like rapidity, yet vivid as events of yesterday, swept before the mental retina.

When he was nine years of age, young Markham's mother sold the store and bought a sheep ranch in Lagoon Valley, California. Here hard toil, severe hardships, and the privations common to the pioneer life fell to the lot of the boy. Through the meagre advantages of the poor frontier country schools, the child, who had early evinced a passion for knowledge, learned to read and write. Happily, two circumstances favored the boy: he gained access to the writings of many of the greatest masters in the world of literature, and it fell to his lot to herd sheep in the valleys of the Sierras, amid the beauty and sublimity of nature. Day after day he spent in this solitary life, companioned by his sheep in the mountain-rimmed valley where during half the year the earth is robed in emerald and spangled with gold. Through the other time it is yellow, seer, and arid.

"California," said the poet, "has but two seasons, one of cloud and flowers, the other of dust and skies."

In his mountain home the youth held double converse. Nature, the mother of giants, and the geniuses of the past communed with the boy. Day by day, under the shadow of the rocks or in the shade of the trees, with flowers blooming at his feet and the wind crooning in the branches overhead, he would turn with wistful eyes from the mountains to his books. How in keeping with the emotions awakened by the grandeur of Nature were the stately verse of Homer and the wonderful poetry of the Shepherd King of Israel; and how naturally did the youth turn from contemplation of the greatest children of song to the life and teachings of that One whose name will ever be "The Wonderful, the Counselor!" How stately was that simple life -- that supreme incarnation of Love! The boy, as he bent over the marvelous flowers that carpeted the mountain side, often wondered if the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley were as fair as the wild blossoms of the Sierras. He remembered how Jesus loved the flowers of Palestine and how to him the lily was more beautiful than Solomon in all his glory; and he often pictured the great Prophet journeying alone into the silent recesses of the mountains to commune with His Father. Was not God also in the Sierras? Might it not be that in moments when he felt a strange exaltation, he too came in contact with the Infinite? He loved to think of the Great Nazarene, when on the mountain side of old Galilee he delivered that Sermon which embodies the loftiest ethics ever given to the world. Long he pondered the Golden Rule. How simple the word! -- yet empearled in that magic message lay the hope of civilization, the secret of man's redemption. He who would know the meaning of happiness must weave that law of conduct into his daily life. He who would bless his race and help to further the knowledge of God must not cry, "Lord, Lord!" while serving self. He must work for the realization of the "Fraternal State."

As day by day the boy stood beneath the blue dome of heaven, walled in by rugged, age-scarred mountains and enthralled by the solemn, ceaseless roar of the distant waterfalls, or the mysterious whisperings of the pines as the wind caressed their graceful plumes and the sun called forth their incense tribute of rich, health-giving exhalations, while enveloped in the wonder and beauty of Nature, whose aspects ever changed, but whose glory never lost its witching charm, little did he imagine that God Himself was storing his youthful mind with treasures not gained in manmade schools.

Time and again the boy lingered in the early morn with face toward the east, enrapt by the transformation scene of dawn. The sentinel stars of the morning waned and disappeared, while a soft pink glow, delicate as the blush upon the opening blossom of the peach, suffused the east. And then, as by magic, the pink deepened into a warm red glow that lent new charm to rock and tree, while the soft haze that hid the distant mountains suddenly became a bridal veil, mantling the peaks that first greeted the day. And then the red was lost in the glory of light, and the sun's radiance lit up the western heights while yet the valley lay in shade.

Sometimes at evening, when the herd was headed for the corral and the distant tinkling of the leader's bell and the pounding of many hoofs on the rocky pathway came as an accompaniment to Nature's subdued strains, young Markham was overmastered by the sea of glory that filled the western sky and witnessed anew to Nature's delight in gorgeous colorings. Here, sometimes with flaming scarlet, sometimes with crimson, gold, orange, and lemon for a background, clouds rolled together in mighty billows, momentarily taking on new tints as luminous and multitudinous as were their shapes varied and suggestive. Sometimes royal purple predominated, and then beaten gold, with here and there a cloud that glistened with that dazzling whiteness which we associate with the robes of those whose purity of heart has admitted them into the audience chamber of the Eternal; and all the while the earth answered back to the glow of the sky. The red, the green, the gray, and the purple tints of the rocks took on vivid hues that vied with the splendor of autumn; while the peaceful valley, where it had not come under the shadow of the rocks, was glorious in emerald and russet, and the mountain brook, so lately a ribbon of silver, now caught up and reflected the beauty of the sky, becoming a serpentine stream of molten gold.

And there were nights such as are known only to those environed by Nature in her majestic moods -- nights when the stars refused to yield their glory to the moon, and the deep blue firmament was studded with diamond dust, while below rose the sable, gloomy, and solemn Sierras, seamed and riven by the travail of Nature, eloquent in their sphinx-like silence -- age-long watchers, gravely noting the rise and fall of races and the coming and going of generations.

And so in this great university of Nature, amid scenes where sublimity touched hands with beauty, the imagination of the boy was fed and his vision expanded. God spoke to the soul of the youth as surely as in olden times he spoke to the child Samuel, and, though the physical ear was not yet attuned to catch the vibrations of the Infinite, the spirit received the message with awe and wonder and pondered its lessons. The prophets of ancient Israel were no more truly prepared by God to deliver their message to the children of men than was this child of the Sierras, whose pure imagination was flooded by the wonderful wealth of lofty imagery and whose thought-world was tinged and colored by the beauty, simplicity, and dignity of Nature.

In those days the district schools were held for three or four months a year. The Western lands had been settled by so many sturdy children of the older States that, in spite of poverty and privation, the importance of giving the children a knowledge of at least the three R's was accepted as a matter of course, and before he was ten years of age, Edwin Markham could read well and had acquired a passion for books. The barren home did not possess a library, but one day in rummaging through a closet the boy came upon some books -- Byron's complete poems, Scott's "Tales of a Grandfather," and Pope's translation of "The Iliad." These opened a new world to the eager young mind. Byron was his chief delight. The splendid poetic pictures and vivid imagery of that luxuriant imagination, clothed in flowing rhyme, awakened the poet in the boy. Byron's lines were germinal, starting trains of thought and stimulating the imagination, so that earth took on a new and strange beauty.

At this time, young as he was, the boy concluded that thoughts and ideas were the only things worth while and that poetry was the proper vehicle for expression. He determined to become a poet, and with this idea in mind he improved every spare moment to acquire knowledge, a grammar and an arithmetic occupying much of his time.

When the lad was twelve years old the mother sold her sheep and bought cattle, and he henceforth became a cowboy, with horse, spurs, and lariat. This new life, though more picturesque and active, was not so favorable to his studies, yet many were the hours he enjoyed with his books, and the life, with all its hardships, was not devoid of romantic interest. There was one time in the year when all the cattle of the valley were rounded up and branded. This was quite an event, and the memory of it stands out vividly in the poet's imagination. It was a week of fraternizing with the neighbors, and often one of the Morgans of the valley would have some fat steers killed and barbecued, when all the stock-men were invited to the feast.

The rigidly practical mother had scant sympathy for the dreams of the poet lad. Life to her was something stern and practical -- something not to be wasted on books or frittered away in idealistic dreams. She shrewdly distrusted literature as a provider for the outer man and wished her son to remain on the soil. But the boy was not wholly devoid of sympathetic counsellors. Two of the schoolteachers exercised great influence on his plastic mind between the ages of nine and fourteen. Their help, sympathy, and encouragement are among the most precious memories of his boyhood days. One of these men was Mr. Wood, afterwards a prominent lawyer in San Francisco and still later a Congressman. He took great interest in young Markham and devoted noon hours and other time to helping him with his more difficult studies.

The other teacher was a Mr. Hill. He came from the South and was an ardent admirer of Augusta J. Evans. He had a well-worn copy of "St. Elmo" which he read during the noon hours to the boy, who seemed chiefly to enjoy the verse interspersed throughout the chapters.

Edwin one day unfolded to the teacher his interest in poetry, informing him that he was well acquainted with "the great poet," Byron.

"Yes, Byron was a wonderful poet, but there were others."

The boy's eyes grew large with expectation as the teacher told him of Tom Moore. "He wrote 'Lalla Rookh'; you must read it some day," he said, and forthwith Mr. Hill began to quote from the poem, while the youth stood spellbound.

"I know poetry," he exclaimed at last, "and that is poetry."

"Yes, it is poetry, and there are other poets."

"Other poets?" repeated the boy, in tones that invited further confidences.

"O, yes. There is one named Bryant; he is an American." And at this he began to quote "The Past."

"And that is poetry, too," confidently affirmed the young oracle.

"Yes, and there is another poet, greater than the others; his name is Tennyson. He has written many poems. 'The Idylls of the King' and 'The Princess' are very beautiful and you must read them some time." And the teacher began to quote the famous lines beginning, "Tears, idle tears."

"I stood riveted to the earth," said the poet, "spell-bound by the new wonder."

The haunting witchery of this new world of wealth that had been thus glimpsed to him gave place to a resolute determination to possess these books. But how could they be secured? That was the serious question. Poverty had ever dogged his steps. On one occasion the poet said: "I have eaten of the edges and the very heart of poverty." Happily, a neighbor had a twenty-acre field that he wished to have ploughed, but nobody cared to undertake the task, because the land was full of stones, rocks, and boulders. Young Markham had had considerable experience in ploughing on his mother's farm, and now he applied to the neighbor for work.

"You can plough that twenty-acre field," said the farmer, "and when it is done I will give you twenty dollars."

The boy accepted the offer and set to work to master a task not calculated to inspire poetic thoughts. When it was done and he received his pay his mother was ready for her annual trip to San Francisco to lay in the year's supply of food. She promised to buy for him an unabridged dictionary and the volumes of Moore, Bryant, and Tennyson. In due time she returned, laden with the treasures.

"I was," said the poet, "on Pisgah's height. The heavens opened before me and the days that followed were filled with the joy of living."

The poets, however, only increased his determination to become himself a poet, and the need of more education made him again restless. His mother so discouraged all his literary aspirations that the hour came when he felt he must either leave home or settle down to the hum-drum life of a farmer, so one day, when the mother was away from home on a visit, the boy saddled his horse, took a blanket and a week's provisions, and turned his face toward the tall timber of the mountain region.

After various adventures, some of them rather perilous and exciting, he secured work in different places. One day, while hired out as a cowboy, his mother appeared on the scene, and he returned with her to the home, but resolutely determined to acquire an education, and the mother at last consented to his going to San Francisco to attend the normal school. With his earnings he was enabled to spend one year in the school, when he received a second-class certificate as a teacher. He then secured a school where by teaching he obtained sufficient money to enable him to complete his normal course. He graduated, ranking second in his class, and after teaching school for a time, entered Christian College, Santa Rosa, California. After graduating from this institution, Mr. Markham secured a position as superintendent of education in one of the northern counties of California and later was made principal of Tompkins Observation School at Oakland. This is the preparatory school for the University of California.

There were many times when he supplemented his brain work with manual labor, and at one time he learned the blacksmith's trade and earned needed money by that work.

He was trained in a rugged school -- an education well calculated to develop body, brain, and the heart-mind. He learned the dignity and worth of hard manual labor, and there also sprang up in his heart loving sympathy for the struggling toilers and an intimate understanding of their trials and hardships.

Gifted with the poet's imagination, he saw a beauty, glory, and splendor in earth, sky, and the phenomena of Nature that eludes the many. A child of fine and sensitive nature, a dreamer and a mystic, his youth was cast in a hard and unlovely mould that would have crushed or ruined a less resolute soul or one wanting in high moral idealism. With almost everything against his realizing the dream that haunted him, with adverse circumstances ever present on the pathway to the land of his heart's desire, with poverty dogging his footsteps and home influences retarding rather than fostering his ambition, he resolutely met and conquered obstacle after obstacle, rising above the crushing pressure of seeming unkind fate, until he triumphed and triumphed splendidly; for his victory was that of the moral hero, who in rising has not pushed down another struggling life or gained his goal at the expense of the happiness, the rights, or the just demands of others.

Poverty did not embitter him, and through all the years of stress and strain he was faithful to the vision that like a pillar of fire floated on his mental horizon. During years when he was working with hand and brain, he was creating the poem that, when published, made him at once a poet with a world-wide reputation. "The Man With the Hoe" is epic in character, and one of the most sweeping indictments of civilization to be found in literature. Such a work could only be written by a true poet, who, in addition to being dowered with imagination, possesses the heart-mind and that glowing moral enthusiasm that is the glory-crown of those who achieved for themselves only by ennobling the lives and thought-world of others.

It was while in Oakland that Mr. Markham published "The Man With the Hoe," and there, in 1897, he married Miss Anna Catherine Murphy. From this happy union has sprung a son, Virgil, a fine, wholesome, sunny-natured child, who, with his mother, brings into the poet's life something no wealth could bestow.

For many years Mr. Markham has resided in the East, devoting his life to literary pursuits. His two published volumes of poems are to be followed in a few months by a third book, now in press, entitled "The Shoes of Happiness and Other Poems."

One of Mr. Markham's most important recent works is entitled "Children of Bondage," a volume which he has prepared in collaboration with Judge Ben B. Lindsey, George Creel, and Owen R. Lovejoy. It is one of the most compelling and conscience-stirring volumes that our wonderful age has produced, dealing with the moral crime of child labor or the slavery of the little ones which dwarfs their physical, mental, and moral natures and robs them of the heritage that should be the right of every free-born child.

His latest work deals with California, from the remote past; a volume in which historical verities are treated in the lofty imaginative vein of the true poet.

Years have not chilled his heart nor weakened his faith. He has maintained through all the vicissitudes of life the child nature, open to the truth, receptive to the beautiful and the true, the tender and the loving. His is a deeply religious nature, tinged with mysticism; but he is as far from dogmatism or the limits of creedal theology and the thralldom of superstition as was the great Nazarene whose life he has ever striven to emulate and whose great truths have ever been to him an unfailing source of inspiration.

from Flower, B. O. Progressive Men, Women, and Movements of the Past Twenty-Five Years (Boston: The New Arena, 1914. Online Source

Return to Edwin Markham