Thursday, February 23, 2006

Ambrose Bierce and Edwin Markham: Two Poets

Most 19th century California poets-- Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, Ina Coolbrith, Charles Warren Stoddard, George Sterling, and Nora May French--seem to be most influenced by early 19th century British romantic poets; they attempted to use this romantic poetics to describe the new California landscape and their own emotions. Their poems lack originality and are largely derivative romanticism though they do give much insight into the emotional lives of late 19th century Anglo Californians.

But by the end of 19th century a few California poets--Ambrose Bierce, Edwin Markham, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Yone Nogouchi--have finally broken with this derivative romanticism to sound a more modern note. Bierce, a Civil War soldier who fought in some horrendous battles such as Chickamauga and Shiloh, wrote some brilliant short stories giving a more realistic, non-romantic even grim view of war: "Chickamauga," about a boy discovering war in the midst of the horror of the battle; and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," about the hanging of a Southern spy. He's also known for the bitter satire of his The Devil's Dictionary. At the end of his life he went to Mexico, joined Pancho Villa's army in Mexico in 1913 and then disappearing. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote a novel about Bierce titled The Old Gringo which was made into a movie.

Instead of Romatic poet's emphasis on emtion and feeling, Bierce emphasized wit, particulary satire and parody in his many poems. His "A Rational Anthem" is a parody of that patriotic song "My county, 'tis of thee." While the original song praises the U.S. as a "sweet land of liberty" and "pilgrim's pride" in 5-line stanzas, Bierce uses the same 5-line stanzas to praise "sweet land of felony" where "my fathers fried/young witches and applied/Whips to the Quaker's hide/." He uses the same verse structure and rhymes in his parody.

When the original song celebrates the "noble free" and the rocks, hills, woods, etc., Bierce instead celebrates the country "where the thief is free" and the "thieving bills." In the third stanza while the original song extols the romantic sound of music and natural beauty, Bierce the realist instead extols government employees who rob. Bierce is writing a poetry for the corruption of the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons. He was famous for his savage satires of the Robber Baron politicans and corrupt politicians of that era.

The Southern Pacific Railroad dominated California politics throughout the 2nd half of the 19th century: its director Leland Stanford was elected governor while the railorad men routinely bribed the state legislators. Bierce wrote 4-line "Two Epigrams" about this corrupt politcs. In the 1st epigram those who elected Stanford to the Upper House of the legisalator, though " dead, they were elected to the lower." In the 2nd epigram Stanford looks down on God, expected "God to hasten to meet him."

Very different from Bierce is Edwin Markham, a late 19th century schoolteacher who believed in Christian socialism popular at the end of the century. Markham befriended naturalistic writers in San Francisco--Jack London, Amrbrose Bierce, and Frank Norris. After seeing Millet's painting "The Man with the Hoe," he wrote a poem also titled "The Man with the Hoe," which was published in 1899 in the San Francisco newspaper and reprinted 10,000 times, making Markham internationally famous. His poetry is dominated by naturalism, that late 19th century literary idea that a brutal environment determines human existence.

In Markham's "Man with the Hoe" the first stanza describes the poor farmworker crushed by "the weight of centuries" of a harsh work environment. The farmer is called "brother to the ox," and is described as "bowed" with an empty face "dead to rapture and despair" and a "brutal jaw."

The 2nd stanza refers back to the epigraph quoting Genesis how God made man in his own image and refers to God giving Man "dominion" over the whole natural universe as well as the power to have grand dreams. In both the 2nd and 3rd stanzas Markham undercuts the romantic dreams and pretensions with the reality of the farmworker's life:Obviously, the beaten down worker in stanza one is far from the grand dreamer of stanza two. In the 3rd stanza Markham develops this gulf between a man too brutalized and beaten by his life to understand Plato or meditate on the Pleiades. Markham calls this a "tragedy in that aching stoop"--the brutal enviornment has betrayed humanity itself. Markham like Bierce continually undercuts romantic dreams by comparing them to the brutal reality.

In the last two stanzas the poet addresses "masters, lords and rulers of all lands" asking again and again how they can heal this beaten down soul. If they don't, he warns in the last stanza of "whirlwinds of rebellion" as if predicting the peasant rebellions of the 20th century.

Both Bierce and Markham broke with the rosy romanticism of earlier Anglo California poets. The two late 19th centruy writers weren't interest in charming physical landscape descriptions but of the brutal political, social, and encomic landscape, and found new poetic ways to describe the material ugliness in their world. '

Both used the poem as argument, not lyric; their poetic arguments cut to the bone of important issues in the 1890s. They both wrote an intellectually musucular poetry. Modernists like Pound, Elliot or Williams focused so much on lyric, they wrote a poetry that often lacked Bierce's and Markham's tough intellectual poetics. Both late 1890s writers paved the way for 20th century writers: Bierce influenced Borges and horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft while Markham was one of many California poets and novelists who describe hardship in the fields leading to Steinbeck and Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesio (Farmworkers Theater).


Lyle Daggett said...

Another great article. So essential to keep this history in the light of day. I'm really enjoying reading these.

I've put a link to this article, and the one on John Rollin Ridge, in my blog.

Once again thanks.

California Writer said...

Thanks. I enjoy writing them, and thanks again. I am going to keep on writing on California poets for the next couple weeks. I'll do a series of articles on them.