On Odd Poem for (and from) an Odd Time

The poem, which I’m only excerpting is “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan.”

“Oh the longhorns from Texas,
The jay hawks from Kansas,
The plop-eyed bungaroo and giant giassicus,
The varmint, chipmunk, bugaboo,
The horn-toad, prairie-dog and ballyhoo,
From all the newborn states arow,
Bidding the eagles of the west fly on,
Bidding the eagles of the west fly on.
The fawn, prodactyl, and thing-a-ma-jig,
The rackaboor, the hellangone,
The whangdoodle, batfowl and pig,
The coyote, wild-cat and grizzly in a glow,
In a miracle of health and speed, the whole breed abreast,
The leaped the Mississippi, blue border of the West,
From the Gulf to Canada, two thousand miles long:-
Against the towns of Tubal Cain,
Ah,– sharp was their song.
Against the ways of Tubal Cain, too cunning for the young,
The longhorn calf, the buffalo and wampus gave tongue.”

[SNIP]

“And these children and their sons
At last rode through the cactus,
A cliff of mighty cowboys
On the lope,
With gun and rope.
And all the way to frightened Maine the old East heard them call,
And saw our Bryan by a mile lead the wall
Of men and whirling flowers and beasts,
The bard and prophet of them all.
Prairie avenger, mountain lion,
Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
Gigantic troubadour, speaking like a siege gun,
Smashing Plymouth Rock with his boulders from the West,
And just a hundred miles behind, tornadoes piled across the sky,
Blotting out sun and moon,
A sign on high.”

Vachel Lindsay is probably better known, if anyone knows him these days, for “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.” He’s one of the Victorian ballad poets, along with Stephen Vincent Benet, Sam Walter Foss (“The Coming American” aka “Give me Men to Match my Mountains”) and Sidney Lanier. Lindsay has a dubious reputation because of his poem “The Congo.” He encouraged African-American poets and authors, but also condescended to non-Anglos in general, and to Africans in particular (like so many in his time), and is pretty much ignored these days. However, the second excerpt appeared as a comment on The Powerline Blog, which sent me tracking down the source. G-d bless PoemHunter and other sites!

I warned you, it’s a strange poem. I suspect any ballad about US politics is going to veer into the surreal.

Lindsay’s poem is about William Jennings Bryan, the Populist (and later Democrat) who became a symbol for the ordinary people of the rural areas and US West, those shut out of machine politics. There was a growing sense in the 1870s-1890s that the East had grown corrupt, and rotten, isolated from the real people of the country. The Populists wanted to reclaim their voice in government, to stop the long deflation that so hurt farmers and miners, to clean out the machines that seemed to control national and state (and local) politics. These were the days when men really did meet in dark, smoke-filled back rooms to decide who would be president. The Republicans were resting on the laurels of the Civil War, the Democrats didn’t seem much more responsive, and the Populists, Farmers’ Alliance, and others wanted their turn.

If you’ve read Kipling, or much Old Testament, you’ll recognize Jubal and Tubal Cain. Some of the creatures Lindsay lists are imaginary, some are folk-lore, some (jay hawk) have political connotations that he ignored. The young west, the wild west, the clean, honest wilderness and the people who settle there, they are going to reclaim the East, to smash the corruption, all led by William Jennings Bryan.

The idea of the west, the frontier, as a place of moral superiority and uplift was very popular in the late 1800s. You get a hint of that in Kipling, especially “The Explorer” (“Something Lost Beyond the Ranges”.) Without a frontier, the US would grow decadent, and corrupt, and stagnant, and start to rot – like Europe. In 1892 the head of the US Census had declared that the frontier was closed. The population had settled too much of the country, and no open frontier remained. This led to much philosophizing and bewailing the lack. This was also the age of the machine politics, the Gilded Age, Mark Hanna, Boss Tweed, the Chicago Machine and “Honest Graft.”

The comment on Powerline ended with something to the effect that “Who would have thought that Lindsay was talking about truck drivers?”

The Populists didn’t win, exactly, the Progressives and the machines did (temporarily. Then the Progressives became the machine.) The Populists didn’t disappear. The Farmers’ Alliance is still around, the Farmers’ Union still has members and supporters, and the sense that the ordinary people of the Midwest and South are less corrupt than the professional politicians of the coasts, that’s still with us.

7 thoughts on “On Odd Poem for (and from) an Odd Time

  1. He was also satirized in a popular children’s adventure by L. Frank Baum. Inspiration for The Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz”, but not as awful as in the film.

  2. He’s wonderful to read aloud with lots of rhythm and sound effects like in The Kallyope Yell and also in The Congo. Yes, The Congo is horribly racist but listening to it read aloud by a good poetry reader is amazing.

  3. Note: Marcus “Mark” Alonzo Hanna has no terminal “h” in the last name. Aside from his role as a political boss, he was instrumental in the creation and consolidation of several major Cleveland streetcar companies, in which capacity he clashes often with the socialist-leaning business-turned-politician Tom L. Johnson.

    • Thanks. The article I was looking at had a terminal “h.” I suspect Autocomplete might have played a role. (Or an editor who didn’t know what to look out for.)

      • You’re welcome. Only reason I brought it up was because I was pretty sure I knew who you were referring to but a quick web search on Mark Hannah was bringing back results on at least one person with that spelling. And of course since I was commenting on spelling, there were mistakes in my reply!

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