Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, AUTOCHTHON, by EDWIN MARKHAM



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AUTOCHTHON, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: In a rude country some four thousand miles
Last Line: O leader in a commonwealth of thought!
Subject(s): Darwin, Charles (1809-1882); Judgments; Life; Tennyson, Alfred (1809-1892); Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron


IN a rude country some four thousand miles
From Charles' and Alfred's birthplace you were born,
In the same year. But Charles and you were born
On the same day, and Alfred six months later.
Thus start you in a sense the race together. ...
Charles goes to Edinburgh, afterwards
His father picks him for the ministry,
And sends him off to Cambridge where he spends
His time on beetles and geology,
Neglects theology. Alfred is here
Fondling a Virgil and a Horace.
But you — these years you give to reading Æsop,
The Bible, lives of Washington and Franklin,
And Kirkham's grammar.

In 1830 Alfred prints a book
Containing "Mariana," certain other
Delicate, wind-blown bells of airy music.
And in this year you move from Indiana
And settle near Decatur, Illinois,
Hard by the river Sangamon where fever
And ague burned and shook the poor
Swamp saffron creatures of that desolate land.
While Alfred walks the flowering lanes of England,
And reads Theocritus to the song of larks
You clear the forests, plow the stumpy land,
Fight off the torments of mosquitoes, flies
And study Kirkham's grammar.

In 1831 Charles takes a trip
Around the world, sees South America,
And studies living things in Galapagos,
Tahiti, Keeling Island and Tasmania.
In 1831 you take a trip
Upon a flat-boat down to New Orleans
Through hardships scarcely less than Joliet
And Marquette knew in 1673,
Return on foot to Orfutt's store at Salem.

By this time Jacques Rousseau was canonized;
Jefferson dead but seven years or so;
Brook Farm was budding, Garrison had started
His Liberator, Fourier still alive;
And Emerson was preening his slim wings
For flights into broad spaces — there was stir
Enough to sweep the Shelleyan heads, — in truth
Shelley was scarcely passed a decade then.
Old Goodwin still was writing, wars for freedom
Swept through the Grecian Isles, America
Had "isms" in abundance, but not one
Took hold of you.

In 1832 Alfred has drawn
Out of old Mallory and Grecian myths
The "Lady of Shalott" and fair "Œnone,"
And put them into verse.
This is the year you fight the Black Hawk war,
And issue an address to Sangamon's people.
You are but twenty-three, yet this address
Would not shame Charles or Alfred; it's restrained,
And sanely balanced, without extra words,
Or youth's conceits, or imitative figures, dreams
Or "isms" of the day. No, here you hope
That enterprise, morality, sobriety
May be more general, and speak a word
For popular education, so that all
May have a "moderate education" as you say.

You make a plea for railroads and canals,
And ask the suffrages of the people, saying
You have known disappointment far too much
To be chagrined at failure, if you lose.
They take you at your word and send another
To represent them in the Legislature.
Then you decide to learn the blacksmith's trade.
But Fate comes by and plucks you by the sleeve,
And changes history, doubtless.

By '36 when Charles returns to England
You have become a legislator; yes
You tried again and won. You have become
A lawyer too, by working through the levels
Of laborer, store-keeper and surveyor,
Wrapped up in problems of geometry,
And Kirkham's grammar and Sir William Blackstone,
And Coke on Littleton, and Joseph Chitty.
Brook Farm will soon bloom forth, François Fourier
Is still on earth, and Garrison is shaking
Terrible lightning at Slavocracy.
And certain libertarians, videlicet
John Greenleaf Whittier and others, sing
The trampling out of grapes of wrath; in truth
The Hebrews taught the idealist how to sing
Destruction in the name of God and curse
Where strength was lacking for the sword — but you
Are not a Robert Emmet, or a Shelley,
Have no false dreams of dying to bring in
The day of Liberty. At twenty-three
You're measuring the world and waiting for
Dawn's mists to clear that you may measure it,
And know the field's dimensions ere you put
Your handle to the plow.

In 1833 a man named Hallam,
A friend of Alfred's died at twenty-two.
Thereafter Alfred worked his hopes and fears
Upon the dark impasto of this loss
In delicate colors. And in 1850
When you were sunk in melancholia,
As one of no use in the world, adjudged
To be of no use by your time and place,
Alfred brought forth his Dante dream of life,
Received the laureate wreath and settled down
With a fair wife amid entrancing richness
Of sunny seas and silken sails and dreams
Of Araby,
And ivied halls, and meadows where the breeze
Of temperate England blows the hurrying cloud.
There, seated like an Oriental king
In silk and linen clothed took the acclaim
Of England and the world! ...
This is the year
You sit in a little office there in Springfield,
Feet on the desk and brood. What are you thinking?
You're forty-one; around you spears are whacking
The wind-mills of the day, you watch and weigh.
The sun-light of your mind quivers about
The darkness every thinking soul must know,
And lights up hidden things behind the door,
And in dark corners. You have fathomed much,
Weighed life and men. O what a spheréd brain,
Strong nerved, fresh blooded, firm in plasmic fire,

And ready for a task, if there be one!
That is the question that makes brooding thought:
For you know well men come into the world
And find no task, and die, and are not known —
Great spheréd brains gone into dust again,
Their light under a bushel all their days!
In 1859, Charles publishes
His "Origin of Species," and 't is said
You see it, or at least hear what it is.
Out of three travelers in a distant land
One writes a book of what the three have seen.
Perhaps you never read much, yet perhaps
Some books were just a record of your mind.
How had it helped you in your work to read
The "Idylls of the King"? As much, perhaps,
Had Alfred read the Northwest Ordinance
Of 1787. ...

But in this year
Of '59 you're sunk in blackest thought
About the country maybe, but, I think,
About this riddle of our mortal life.
You were a poet, Abraham, from your birth.
That makes you think, and makes you deal at last
With things material to the tune of laws
Moving in higher spaces when you're called
To act — and show a poet moulding stuff
Too tough for spirits practical to mould.
Here are you with your feet upon the desk.
You have been beaten in a cause which kept
Some strings too loose to catch the vibrate waves
Of a great Harp whose music you have sensed.

You are a mathematician using symbols
Like Justice, Truth, with keenness to perceive
Disturbance of equations, a logician
Who sees invariable laws, and beauty born
Of finding out and following the laws.
You are a Plato brooding there in Springfield.
You are a poet with a voice for Truth,
And never to be claimed by visionaries
Who chant the theme of bread and bread alone.

But here and now
They want you not for Senator, it seems.
You have been tossed to one side by the rush
Of world events, left stranded and alone,
And fitted for no use, it seems, in Springfield.
A country lawyer with a solid logic,
And gift of prudent phrase which has a way
Of hardening under time to rock as hard
As the enduring thought you seal it with.
You've reached your fiftieth year, your occultation
Should pass. If ever, we should see a light:
In all your life you have not seen a city.
But now our Springfield giant strides Broadway,
Thrills William Cullen Bryant, sets a wonder
Going about the East, that Kirkham's grammar
Can give a man such speech at Cooper Union,
Which even Alfred's, trained to Virgil's style,
Cannot disdain for matching in the thought
With faultless clearness.

And still in 1860 all the Brahmins
Have fear to give you power.
You are a backwoodsman, a country lawyer
Unlettered in the difficult art of states.
A denizen of a squalid western town,
Dowered with a knack of argument alone,
Which wakes the country school-house, and may lift
Its devotees to Congress by good fortune.
But then at Cooper Union intuitive eyes
Had measured your tall frame, and careful speech,
Your strength and self-possession. Then they came
With that dramatic sense which is American
Into the hall with rails which you had split,
And called you Honest Abe, and wearing badges
With your face on them and the poor catch words
Of Honest Abe, as if you were a referee
Like Honest Kelly, when in truth no man
Had ever been your intimate, ever slapped you
With brisk familiarity, or called you
Anything but Mr. Lincoln, never
Abe, or Abraham, and never used
The Hello Bill of salutation to you —
O great patrician, therefore fit to be
Great democrat as well!

In 1862 Charles publishes
"How Orchid Flowers are Fertilized by Insects,"
And you give forth a proclamation saying
"The Union must have peace, or I wipe out
The blot of Negro slavery. You see,
The symphony's the thing, and if you mar it,
Contending over slavery, I remove
The source of the disharmony. I admit
The freedom of the press — but for the Union.
When you abuse the Union, you shall stop.
And when you are in jail, no habeas corpus
Shall bring relief — I have suspended it."
To-day they call you libertarian —
Well, so you were, but just as Beauty is,
And Truth is, even if they curb and vanquish
The lower heights of beauty and of truth.
They take your speech and deeds and give you place
In Hebrew temples with Ezekiel,
Habakkuk and Isaiah — you emerge
From this association, master man!
You are not of the faith that breeds the ethic
Wranglers, who make economic goals
The strain and test of life. You are not one,
Spite of your lash and sword threat, who believe
God will avenge the weak. That is the dream
Which builds millenniums where disharmonies
That make the larger harmony shall cease —
A dream not yours. And they shall lose you who
Enthrone you as a prophet who cut through
The circle of our human sphere of life
To let in wrath and judgments, final tests
On Life around the price of sparrows, weights
Wherewith bread shall be weighed. ...

There is a windless flame where cries and tears,
Where hunger, strife, and war and human blood
No shadow cast, and where the love of Truth,
Which is not love of individual souls,
Finds solace in a Judgment of our life.
That is the Flame that took both Charles and You —
O leader in a Commonwealth of Thought!





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