A 1902 Interview with Edwin Markham
Author of "The Man with the Hoe, and Other Poems," etc.,
THE POET AS A TEACHER.
Q. It has often been said that poetry must decrease as science and civilization advance. Lord Macaulay in his essay on Milton cites this fact as indicating the greatness of Milton's achievement, and other thinkers also have contended that the writing of a great imaginative poem was far more difficult in a scientific, intellectual, and utilitarian age like the present than in the period in which Homer lived, when an air of mystery rested over the world; when gods were supposed to hold revels on the mountains; when the forests were filled with nymphs and dryads; when every voice of Nature was supposed to be the voice of some incarnate being; when, in a word, the imagination held mastery over the intellect. Do you believe that contention well founded? Has the march of mind, the dispelling of mystery, and the ascendency of science dwarfed the imagination and robbed the world of the mystic charm of poetry ?
A. No; science will never obliterate poetry, for there is no collision between them, any more than there is a collision between the light and heat that make up the sunbeam. Each is necessary in any complete, interpretation of life and its mystery .There is a world of poetry, and it is a real one. There is a world of science, and it is a real one. Both worldsthe poet's world and the proseman's worldare here under this sky; and both worlds are real to the ultimate atom. Neither of these worlds is fancy-born; they are merely different.
Science classifies and coordinates laws and objects, seeking for a principle of unity in the universe. Poetry, however, neglects mere definition, mere catalogue, and seizes eagerly upon that mysterious something that constitutes the deep individuality of things. Science proceeds by the plodding steps of the understanding. Poetry sweeps onward by the swift flight of the imagination. To the scientist a tree has a trunk to be measured, has leaves to be classified, has sap to be analyzed. To the poet, the tree becomes the symbol of his joy and his grief, a medium of his sentiments, his emotions.
Now, these two modes of approaching the world will continue foreveras long as men have minds to be enlightened and hearts to be awakened. It is true that the poetic imagination needs mystery for a background, but mystery will always remain. The unknown will surround us, however deep we may delve into the universe. Science only increases the mystery of life: every new pioneering opens up a new frontier.
Q. The nineteenth century, though preeminently marked by its utilitarianism, and intellectually probably the most revolutionary century of the ages,--the period that marked the rise of physical science and the domination of modern critical methods of research,also produced such marvelous sons of poetry and imagination as Richard Wagner and Victor Hugo. Are not these phenomena in themselves an answer to the wail of the pessimist that the age of poetry is past ?
A. They certainly are. Indeed, the outfit of imaginative literature in this age was never surpassed perhaps by any other epoch. The present era finds its only rivals in the age of Elizabeth and the age of Pericles. Surely at no other time in history were there so many alert minds devoting their energies to poetry and other forms of creative literature. Browning holds wide the door to the heart that Shakespeare opened; Tennyson speaks the wonder of the inflexible law, as Eschylus spoke the sternness of inexorable Fate. The age that gives us the combined harvester also gives us the alluring and intricate strains of Swinburne and the Orphic verses of Emerson. The age that gives us the ocean greyhound and the iron horse is, also, giving us the fine poetic chiselings of Thomas Bailey Aldrich and the lyrical cloud-beauty of Joaquin Miller. On every hand we hear the sound of dollars on the exchanger's counter, yet through all the carnal noises come the prophet chants of an Ernest Crosby and the free outdoor raptures of a Bliss Carman.
Q. To me it seems that poetry was never more needed than at the present time and never a more potential factor in the enrichment of the mind and the stimulation of the best in our natures. Do you not think that one of the greatest heart cries of the age is for BeautyBeauty in thought and expression; in a word, something to feed the imagination and touch the deepest wellsprings of our being: something to lift us above sordid gain-seeking, to exalt our ideals and bring us near to the throbbing Heart of the Universe ?
A. Never was more neededyou are right. There is a deep need for something to temper the hard materialism of the hour. "Where there is no vision the people perish," said the prophet of old time. No truer word was ever spoken within the hearing of this world. The poetthe revealer of Beautyis a precious possession for any people. For he comes with power to open paths for our feet into the lofty places of the idealpaths of escape from the hard monotone of our daily lives, from the iron despotism of the actual. And the ideal is not a vapor, a house of cloud: it is the most vital reality known to menmore precious than Ophir, more enduring than Pentelicus. It is that sacred beauty that draws our eyes away from the dust and mirethat makes us stand erect and look upon the stars.
Q. If our views are correct, then the new wonder-world revealed by science and invention, and the increase of our knowledge of nations, races, and civilizations past and present, ought to broaden and enrich the imagination of the poet as well as stir to nobler expressions the new and splendid spiritual ideals that haunt the prophet brain of the age. The concepts of being have never been so august as now. The realization of the solidarity of life, the dream of brotherhood, and the finding of God's new Bible, writ in the strata of the rocks during countless ages and proving that the key-note of life from that far-away night-time when the spirit of God brooded over the waters has been Ascentthese things, it seems to me, should appeal to the imagination of the poet with a power not known to the men who lived in the childhood period of our race. Am I not right ?
A. You are right in every word. All things are working together for good to the client of the Muses. Science opens a new mystery for the poet's wonder; history discloses new dramas for his instruction; democracy reveals new ground for his hope and his prophecy. The world was never before so rich in all the precious seed of poesy. All that is needed for a new poetic age is that the poets shall appearthe men with the far-seeing eye, the passionate heart, and the power to compel words to their loftier uses.
from The Arena, New York, December 1902
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