This Old Poem #97:
Edwin Markham’s A Prayer
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/30/04 

  Edwin Markham is 1 of those poets who just accidentally happened to write a great poem- his famed The Man With The Hoe, based on the famed painting by Jean-François Millet. You know how it starts:

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?

  Its end just as famously:

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?

  It really is a great poem- but the only poem he ever wrote that even remotely approached greatness. By profession he was a teacher. In fact, other than The Man With The Hoe EM is really known for 1 other poem: 


He drew a circle that shut me out--
        Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
        We drew a circle that took him in!

  Aside from these 2 poems it was pretty much downhill for EM. This is typical of his poetry. From Lincoln, Man of the People:

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.

  Or this poem The Man Under The Stone:


When I see a workingman with mouths to feed,
Up, day after day, in the dark, before the dawn,
And coming home, night after night, through the dusk,
Swinging forward like some fierce, silent animal,
I see a man doomed to roll a huge stone up an endless steep.
He strains it onward inch by stubborn inch,
Crouched always in the shadow of the rock....
See where he crouches, twisted, cramped, misshapen!
He lifts for their life;
The veins knot and darken—
Blood surges into his face.
Now he loses—now he wins—
Now he loses—loses—(God of my soul!)
He digs his feet into the earth—
There's a moment of terrified effort…
Will the huge stone break his hold,
And crush him as it plunges to the gulf?
The silent struggle goes on and on,
Like two contending in a dream.


  Even the excellent end line cannot rescue the bathetic melodrama of the poem- something missing from his more famous poem on the plight of the worker. Too often poems like the above felt a didactic moralizing necessity that damned their artistic bent- not unlike that of the PC Elitists of a century later. Here’s how the over-the-top Brotherhood ends:

Come, clear the way, then, clear the way;
Blind creeds and kings have had their day;
Break the dead branches from the path;
Out Hope is in the aftermath--
Our hope is in heroic men
Star-led to build the world again.
Make way for brotherhood--make way for Man!


  Critics of the poems (from a social & artistic perspective) found it easy to dismiss most of EM’s earlier poetry as the ranting poetastry of a disaffected agitator. But The Man With The Hoe, after it first appeared on January 15, 1899, in the San Francisco Examiner, was not so easy to dismiss. The excellent poem was republished in over 10,000 newspapers & magazines, then translated into more than 50 languages. But unlike those earlier popular (& critically minor) successes, this poem was a controversial 1. EM would ride its success to fame & wealth the rest of his days. Here’s his online bio:


  Edwin Markham was born Charles Edwin Anson Markham in Oregon City in the Oregon Territory in 1852, the son of Samuel Barzillai Markham and Elizabeth Winchell, a rancher. Shortly after Markham’s birth, his parents divorced, and he remained with his mother. In 1856 they moved to a ranch near Suisun, California, where Markham learned to do manual labor and from which his siblings gradually departed to escape their mother's oppressive presence. Markham himself ran away briefly in 1867, returning only when his mother agreed to help subsidize his education. He studied at California College in Vacaville, receiving teacher's certification, and subsequently at both San Jose Normal School and Christian College in Santa Rosa.

  Markham began teaching in 1872 in Los Berros, California; in 1874 he moved to Coloma, where he was a popular and prominent figure. There he entered the first of his three marriages, wedding Annie Cox in 1875. They relocated to Placerville, California, where Markham was employed as a school administrator. At about the same time, Markham fell under the influence of Thomas Lake Harris, whom Joseph Slade describes as “a poet, spiritualist, socialist, and charlatan”.

  Markham's first marriage failed in 1884, probably largely owing to his affair with Elizabeth Senter; Senter died in 1885, leaving Markham alone again. He soon entered another relationship, this time with Caroline Bailey, whom he subsequently married under duress in 1887. She moved out when Markham's mother joined their household, and she died in 1893. In Oakland in 1898 Markham married his third and final wife, Anna Catherine Murphy, with whom he had a son. Anna was Markham's "collaborator and editor" until her death in 1938.

  Throughout the 1880s and 1890s Markham continued his teaching career and worked hard to establish himself as an important poetic voice. On the strength of his first book, Markham received a request to write a poem commemorating Abraham Lincoln's birthday in 1900. Jack London compared Markham's poem ‘Lincoln, Man of the People’  favorably with Whitman’s ‘O Captain, My Captain’ and suggested that in the future, Markham's would be the poetic name most closely associated with the fallen leader's legacy.

  In 1901 Markham published his second volume, Lincoln and Other Poems. After that first burst of creative output, Markham's productivity slowed dramatically. His third volume of poetry, The Shoes of Happiness, did not appear until 1915; his fourth, The Gates of Paradise, appeared in 1920, and his final book, New Poems: Eighty Songs at Eighty, was published in 1932. Between publications, Markham lectured and wrote in other genres, including essays and nonfiction prose. He also gave much of his time to organizations such as the Poetry Society of America, which he established in 1910.

  The change in Markham’s literary significance has been tied to the development of modernist poetry and his steadfast refusal to change to meet the increasing demands arising with the appearance of poets such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams. Their emphasis on changes in literary forms and their movement away from social commentary and political topics made much of what distinguished Markham's verse dated. He gradually fell from critical favor, and his reputation never fully recovered. In 1936 Markham suffered a debilitating stroke from which he never fully recovered; he died at his home on Staten Island, New York in 1940.


  There was a reason for the critics’ disenchantment- recall this was when critics actually criticized. Here’s the poem in question:


A Prayer


Teach me, Father, how to go
Softly as the grasses grow;
Hush my soul to meet the shock
Of the wild world as a rock;
But my spirit, propt with power,
Make as simple as a flower.
Let the dry heart fill its cup,
Like a poppy looking up;
Let life lightly wear her crown
Like a poppy looking down,
When its heart is filled with dew,
And its life begins anew.

Teach me, Father, how to be
Kind and patient as a tree.
Joyfully the crickets croon
Under the shady oak at noon;
Beetle, on his mission bent,
Tarries in that cooling tent.
Let me, also, cheer a spot,
Hidden field or garden grot—
Place where passing souls can rest
On the way and be their best.

  This is, at best, on equal footing with Joyce Kilmer’s Trees. Some people who dislike my TOP series would chide me for not pointing out why the leaden beat is leaden, or why the numerous clichés are clichés. But I trust you. Let’s prune this baby & ax most of the couplets:

A Prayer

Teach me, Father, how to go,
Hush my soul to meet the shock
Like a poppy looking up;
When its heart is filled with dew
Kind and patient as a tree.
Let me, also, cheer this spot-
Place where passing souls can rest
On the way and be their best.

  This was a hard 1 to fix. Making it non-rhyming removes some of the poem’s ignominy, but I felt the end couplet could work. The rewrite is not so simpering, & the original’s good music works better without the coupleted gonging. As for what it says? Ok, EM was not that deep (save for his famed exception), but the shock of an up-looking flower’s struggle whiled dewed is now interesting, especially when it becomes the locus for transcendence.
  Think of EM when you read the famed poetasters of today. He’s them, except they’ve no The Man With The Hoe!

Final Score: (1-100):

Edwin Markham’s A Prayer: 25
TOP’s A Prayer: 65

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