Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991
Edwin Markham was one of an important group of social workers, writers, and ministers of the period before World War I who championed social justice and revolted against the practices of wealthy corporations. As such, he stood in the company of such figures as Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, William Dean Howells, and Josiah Strong. Since the strong social-conscience element colored critical reception for his works, Markham’s lyric gifts, which came to the fore in several longer poems, went largely unrecognized. His deeply personal poems—such as “Virgilia” and “The Crowning Hour”—included many that reflected on his own time as a child and as a younger man; other poems contained his religious reflections. A Christian-influenced sensibility appeared in even such poems as his evocation of Poe, “Our Israfel,” and contributed to the distinctive character exhibited throughout Markham’s body of work.
“The Man with the Hoe”
While exhibiting a formal rhetorical style that it shared with other poems of the time, “The Man with the Hoe” commanded attention by throwing aside the sentimental approach common in verse in the late nineteenth century. The first lines introduce their subject with short, stark, and straightforward lines:
Bowed by the weight of centuries he leansUpon his hoe and gazes on the ground,The emptiness of ages in his face,And on his back the burden of the world.
Although Markham immediately introduces a religious perspective, he does so through a series of questions, not statements, which ask if this exploited laborer could be the same as the elevated human creature of biblical teachings.
Markham avoided the approach of encouraging his audience to feel sympathetic compassion for the laborer. The worker is a figure to be regarded from outside, a “monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched.” While the true criticism being raised by the poem is directed toward “the world’s blind greed” and the “masters, lords and rulers in all lands,” the riveting image of the downtrodden man remains central. Markham identifies this “monstrous thing” as the “handiwork” of others, the concrete embodiment of the ills of the world.
“The Man with the Hoe” offers a critique of modernity not by raising images of the industrial and commercial social forces that were reshaping the world, but by focusing unflinchingly on the product of those forces. Markham revisited this approach in his poem “The Toiler Thinking,” which he wrote after seeing Auguste Rodin’s statue The Thinker, characterizing Rodin’s figure likewise as a brutalized worker.
Markham’s critique of modernity appeared elsewhere in overt form. In “The New Century” (from Lincoln, and Other Poems), he decries the futility of raising technological wonders without likewise elevating the human condition:
But what avail, O builders of the world,Unless ye build a safety for the soul?Man has put harness on Leviathan,And hooks in his incorrigible jaws;And yet the Perils of the Street remain.
“Lincoln, the Man of the People”
Markham’s approach cannot be fully understood without giving attention to his public poetry, written in a purposely declamatory manner. “Lincoln, the Man of the People” shares with many public poems some degree of hyperbole. Balancing the laudatory aspect, however, are elements that reveal the poet’s love of an imagery of motion, including the opening lines: “When the Norn Mother saw the Whirlwind Hour/ Greatening and darkening as it hurried on . . .” The quiet ending also displays Markham’s sense of tonal balance: “And when he fell in whirwind, 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.”
Markham devoted a significant portion of his output to poetic portraiture, with his subjects including Keats, Walt Whitman, and Charles Dickens. Perhaps most successful was “Our Israfel,” which Markham sent to English Poetry Review as an entry in a contest whose judges included Alfred Noyes. The competition’s purpose was to bring attention to the memorial cottage for Poe at Fordham. Markham had by this time devoted some fifty years of study to Poe and regarded many biographical studies erroneous in their judgment of the short-lived poet. “Our Israfel,” four cantos long, balances references to Poe’s works with passages illuminating the character of those works and also of the poet himself. Rather than being imitative of Poe’s poetry, “Our Israfel” conveys a sense of autumnal sadness by means of lines with a poetic color akin to what Markham achieved in such poems as “Virgilia” and “The Crowning Hour.” The poem is notable for ending lines that set it apart from most evocations of Poe, which arise from the sense of personal compassion influenced by Christian ideals: “So now that all is over, all is past,/ Forget, forget—forgive!”
Another successful foray into a public poetry meant for declamation was “Walt Whitman,” which Markham wrote for the unveiling of the bust of Whitman at New York University’s Hall of Fame. The poem was less encomium than a balanced critical evaluation that revealed as much of Markham as it did of Whitman. In a stanza that calls into question his subject’s impulse to “shout the Ego,” Markham observes of Whitman’s poetry: “. . . never the upward look/ Which sees afar the pure Ideal gleam.” Markham consciously embraced the task of illuminating human ideals as a fitting task for the poet, a stance that placed him apart from the main strand of poetry as it was then developing in America. Since his critical and public success in his chosen literary form began with the socially conscious “A Man with a Hoe,” however, his adherence to this attitude was a consistent one. Markham openly expressed a moral stance in his poetry, and adopted a rhetorical poise of neither intellectual cynicism nor ironic distance, as befit a member of the generation he represented, thirty years younger than Whitman and thirty years older than Ezra Pound.