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Edwin Markham


Charles Edwin Anson Markham was born on April 23, 1852, in Oregon City, Oregon, the youngest of six children. His parents were divorced shortly after his birth, and Charles, as he was known for many years, saw almost nothing of his father. In 1856, Charles moved with his mother and only sister to a ranch in Lagoon Valley, northeast of San Francisco. By the age of twelve, he was doing hard labor on the family farm.

Charles's mother vehemently opposed his interest in literature, but he nonetheless attended a rudimentary "college" at Vacaville, California, and managed to earn enough money through teaching to continue his studies at Christian College in Santa Rosa, California. He completed the classical course in 1873 and went on to teach in El Dorado County. Markham was elected county superintendent of schools in 1879 and received the principalship of the Tompkins Observation School in Oakland in 1890. His circle of friends in Oakland included Joaquin Miller, Donna Coolbrith, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Edmund Clarence Stedman, among many others.

Markham dropped the name Charles in about 1895 and became Edwin. In 1898, after two failed marriages, he married Anna Catherine Murphy. That same year, Markham read "The Man with the Hoe," inspired by Millet's painting by that title, at a New Year's Eve party; the poem, which protested the plight of the exploited laborer, was soon published and became an instant success. Markham and his wife moved to New York shortly after, settling first in Brooklyn and then in Staten Island in 1901. He began lecturing extensively, appearing at labor and radical gatherings as frequently as literary ones.

Markham published several collections of verse, among them The Ballad of the Gallows Bird (1960, Antioch Press), Eighty Poems at Eighty (1932), Gates of Paradise (1920), Lincoln and Other Poems (1901), and The Man with the Hoe and Other Poems (1899). He also edited many anthologies of poetry. His prose work, Children in Bondage (1914), was a landmark in the crusade against child labor. He was the first poet to receive the Academy Fellowship in 1936.

Markham died on March 7, 1940, in Brooklyn, New York. Upon his death, he bequeathed his personal library of 15,000 volumes to the Horrmann Library, Wagner College, on Staten Island. He also gave to the college his personal papers, including many manuscript letters from well-known literary and political figures of the early twentieth century. Among his correspondents were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Carl Sandburg and Amy Lowell.

A Selected Bibliography


Eighty Poems at Eighty (1932)
Gates of Paradise (1920)
Lincoln and Other Poems (1901)
The Ballad of the Gallows Bird (1960)
The Man with the Hoe and Other Poems (1899)


Children in Bondage (1914)

By This Poet


The Man with the 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 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 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 the 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 a 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?