Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Edwin Markham, Farm Boy, Blacksmith, Teacher, Poet

The international discussion of "The Man with the Hoe" had hardly subsided, when popular interest was revived by the remarkable declaration of the author, Mr. Edwin Markham, that he had spent ten years in its production. Who is this magician of the pen, this man of mystery, who carries his readers, in a single sentence, through "a storm of stars," and, in another, kneels with them in dreamy sympathy beside "the brother to the ox," —who mixes up the critics in a hopeless tangle of doubt, and puzzles the public by the erratic chronology of his mental processes?

The widespread interest in the personality of the poet may justify the attempt of the writer to get at the "true inwardness" of his life-story. This has not yet been told.

This handsome dreamer, whose eyes are softer than a fawn's, and whose gray-tinged locks give an unwonted majesty to his mien, is only about fifty years old. Yet, in his span of life, he has been engaged in half a score of vocations, ranging from the exciting and strenuous to the peaceful and poetic. The discovery that he was once a village blacksmith promises to lend interest to a new phase of his distinguished career.


(Written after seeing Millet's World-Famous Painting.)

"God made man in His ozvn image, in the image of God made He him."—Genesis.

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 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 pillared the blue firmament with light?

Down all the stretch of Hell to its 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 fraught with menace 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 are 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 prophesy.

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 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 and rebellion shake the world?

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?


No other poem published in America in many years has so stirred the emotions of the people, commanded so much attention and created so much comment as "The Man with the Hoe." It and Kipling's "Recessional" are regarded as the great poems of the closing years of the century. The critics have hailed "The Man with the Hoe" as a prominent piece of political literature, because of the breadth and depth and vital importance of the theme, and the fervor and noble dignity of its treatment. Yet the poem has been misinterpreted and assailed. It has been said to be an affront to manual labor. The only answer Mr; Markham has thus far made to his critics he dictated to the writer. He also spoke, for the first time for publication, of his mother, and her all-pervading influence on his early life, of his youthful days, and of his own experience with the hoe.

Mr. Markham's poetry proves that his paramount quality is his deep sympathy with suffering. The most marked thing in his personality is his humanity, which effuses, so to speak, in a spontaneous geniality and unaffected interest in others. He laughs easily and tells a story extremely well.


"I am a very serious man at heart," he remarked to me, "but, fortunately, I have a sense of humor. I will confess that the attention attracted by 'The Man with the Hoe' has surprised me, and the comments of some of the gentlemen who have condescended to criticise the poem are amusing. They seem to miss entirely its true spirit and meaning, and yet speak with most complacent confidence. I, — O, you want me to start at the beginning of my life and proceed in an orderly manner, do you? Well, I have said little for print about my early days, but get out your pencil and I will dictate you something.

"That most important event, my birth, occurred in Oregon City, Oregon, on April 23, 1852. My schooling began when I was about four years old, in a primitive little school in my native town.

"While he instilled in my youthful mind the principles of the alphabet and other important knowledge, it was the influence of my mother, —my father having died, —that dominated me. She was, in some respects, the most extraordinary woman I have ever known, — a woman of strong likes and dislikes, and capable of holding on to a purpose to the end. She kept a large store of general merchandise in Oregon City, and conducted the business with remarkable energy. But, despite her hard common sense and practical ability, she was known as the 'Woman Poet of Oregon.' It was from her, of course, that I got my own poetical bent. Her poetry was full of feeling and earnestness, and was impressed with a strong religious spirit. It was published chiefly in newspapers at the time, and I presume I am the only person in the world who now has any of it."


"When I was still a small boy, mother moved to California. She settled in a little wild valley amid the hills in the central part of the state, on a sheep range that she had bought. I was chief herder. All day long I followed the herd over ridge and hollow, and along the hillsides into the blue distance. I absorbed woodcraft and weather-wit, and a love of nature which has been one of the predominating influences of my life.

"After a few years, we turned our place into a cattle range and farm, with myself as chief farmer. I was just entering my 'teens' then. I fenced and plowed the land straggling up the little valley, and learned every detail of a farmer's work and life. The hoe, the shovel, the scythe, the cradle, the reaper, the threshing machine, the grafting knife, —these are all old friends of mine. When I began to near young manhood, I became a thresher, going from farm to farm, helping to thresh out the grain after the harvest home, and often sleeping at night in hay-mows.


"Meanwhile, I devoured all the poetry I could find. I read Byron's poems more than any other's, because a complete set of his works was at hand, and as a result of his influence I wrote, when about sixteen, a very ambitious poem called, 'A Dream of Chaos.' This was only one of my youthful indiscretions in the poetical line. No, I don't believe the general public will ever be asked to read them. It has been kind to me, and deserves fair treatment."

"But, Mr. Markham, did you not find that your hard farm labor tended to crush out the poetry, and finer feehngs generally?"


"Oh, you are now getting on ticklish ground, for it is here that tbe critics of 'The Man with the Hoe' congregate and jubilate. Let me say briefly, though, in answer to you and to them, that I believe in labor, that I believe in its humanizing and redeeming power. Indeed, from a religious point of view, I believe that a man's craft furnishes the chief basis of his redemption. While one is making a house, he is making himself. While he chisels the block of marble he is invisibly shaping his own soul. And it does not matter much what a man does, —whether he builds a poem or hoes in a garden. The chief thing is the way we do our work. It must be done thoroughly, and in the spirit of loving service. Work of this order is a perpetual prayer. The doer is elevated by such work. "But, while all this is true, it is also true that excesses are evils, —that overwork and underpaid work tend to break down instead of build up. Work is good for the child, but I can put such heavy burdens upon him as to deform his body and stunt his mind.

" 'The Man with the Hoe' is, of course, the type of industrial oppression in all lands and in all parts of labor. He is the man who has been chained to the wheel by the fierce necessity for bread, —the man with no time for rest, no time for study, no time for thought, no time for the mighty hopes that make us men. The poem is not a protest against labor; it is a protest against the degradation of labor."


Speaking of the writing of this poem, Mr. Markham said that he sketched the outline of it fourteen years ago, upon seeing a photograph of Millet's famous painting, "The Man with the Hoe." When he saw the picture itself four years afterward, he further elaborated the idea, but did not write it out in complete form until Christmas week, 1900. He then spent three or four days on it, and sent it to the San Francisco Examiner, where it was published for the first time on the eighth of January 1901.

Within a few months, the volume, "The Man with the Hoe and other Poems," was issued by Doubleday and McClure, of New York, and met with so large a sale that it was soon in its fifth edition. It has been very favorably received.

Mr. Markham paid his way through the state normal school at San Jose, and afterward through Christian college at Santa Rosa, California. He has done important educational work in that state as a superintendent and principal of schools in various places, and is now head master of the Tompkins observation school ill Oakland. Inducements have been offered him to deliver a series of lectures throughout the country, and he has received many requests for literary work, with some of which he will comply.

The world is well lost when the world is wrong,
No matter how men deride you;
For if you are patient and firm and strong,
You will find in time, though the time be long,
That the world wheels round beside you. —Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

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