Sunday, February 09, 2014

The tilted world

Here's a little photo hint: if you are on a porch and you want to make a photo of the two vintage houses across the street, and you hold your camera out to get a little closer and under the oak, try to keep the front of the camera parallel to the fronts of the houses. No. there hasn't been another California Earthquake! There are always fine things to take pictures of at the San Jose History Park. I was standing on the porch of the (moved-here) Markham house, where poet Edwin Markham lived with his mom, taught school, and wrote his very famous poem:

The Man with a Hoe

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 marked their ways upon the ancient deep?
Down all the caverns of Hell to their last gulf
There is no shape more terrible than this--
More tongued with cries against the world's blind greed--
More filled with signs and portents for the soul--
More packed with danger 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 the Pleiades?
What 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 Powers that made the world,
A protest that is also prophecy.

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 of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings--
With those who shaped him to the thing he is--
When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?

----Edwin Markham, 1899

L'homme à la houe by Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) is the title of the French painting (about 1863) that inspired this poem. It became so famous that its author was absolutely besieged with requests for handwritten copies. As you can see, it is a poem of substantial length which must have taken much longer than a sonnet to make a fair copy of. The result is a long skinny piece of paper. We have a framed copy in the Markham House, which is now the home of the San Jose Poetry Center. It is quite a competent poem, and justly famous, I think. Although it probably meant that its author would become a one-poem poet. . .

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