Edwin Markham: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Edwin Markham was a poet of the people. His attitudes were socially progressive, and his work gave voice to the suffering and concerns of laborers. Read on to learn about Markham's life and his poetry.

Off To A Shaky Start

Edwin Markham was born Charles Edward Anson Markham in 1852 in Oregon City, Oregon. His mother was anything but kind, and she left her husband after the birth of Edwin, her youngest child. When Edwin was four, his mother left Oregon City with her three youngest children and moved to Suisun, California. As a young child, Edwin was called Charley, and he worked on the family farm, something that would inspire his later poetry. It was a lonely life, and his mother refused to buy books for him or provide any encouragement for education.

Markham ran away from the farm when he was fifteen, and later said that he lived the life of a criminal while he was away from home. When he returned, his mother relented and allowed him to pursue his education. Now that he was given the go ahead, he wasted no time; he earned his teaching certificate in 1870 from Vacaville College.

Edwin Markham
Edwin Markham

A Career Blossoms

In 1873, Markham finished his studies at Christian College in Santa Rosa, while teaching to put himself through school. In 1874, he moved to Coloma, California, where he met and married Annie Cox. By the end of the 1870's, Markham's writing was published in newspapers. In 1882, ''Shut the Door Softly,'' and in 1883, ''Fatal Love'' were well received, but Markham did not garner the recognition he deserved until the twentieth century.

During this time, Markham met Thomas Lake Harris, whose teachings became a significant force in his life. As a socialist, Harris was a believer in social harmony and charity for all, and these themes played a dominant role in Markham's poetry. In 1879, he was elected to the post of superintendent of schools in El Dorado County, California.

Edwin's Wandering Eye

In 1883, Markham had an affair with Dr. Elizabeth Senter, a doctor who was suffering from tuberculous. Even though she was five years older than Markham, he was smitten; he allowed his heart to rule rather than his head. He was granted a divorce from Annie in 1884, but Elizabeth died not longer after, in 1885. Markham didn't wait long, and by 1886 he had found another mistress, Caroline Bailey. This caused a huge ruckus and, as a result, he was forced to resign his position with the school.

Caroline and Markham were married in 1887, but their relationship was rocky. Caroline decided to end the marriage and leave after Markham's mother moved in with the not-so-happy couple. Around 1895, Markham started referring to himself as Edwin, when he had been called Charles until this time. He married Anna Catherine Murphy, a teacher, in 1898. She and Edwin worked together on his writing; she was his editor and collaborator. They had one child, a boy named Virgil.

His Writing Finds its Place

Markham's poem, ''The Man with the Hoe,'' part of a larger collection, was written after he saw a painting by the French artist Jean-François Millet. In the painting, we see a peasant who is stooped over, with a pained expression on his face. This poem marked an enormous change in Markham's life; his life as a poet was launched. ''The Man with the Hoe'' first came out in the San Fransisco Examiner in 1899, but it was reprinted in newspapers all over the country because it dealt with the working class. In the poem, he writes:

'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.'

-Man with a Hoe- by Jean-Francois Millet
Man with a Hoe, Jean-François Millet

Markham's political attitudes and social awareness brought the plight of the working class to the forefront in America. The ensuing debate brought fame and financial security to Markham, and his career as a poet soared.

In his second collection of poems, Lincoln and Other Poems, the title piece found its mark with readers. They loved ''Lincoln, the Man of the People'' almost as much as they did ''The Man with the Hoe.'' In this poem, we are given the blow by blow of Lincoln's life. The last two lines of the first stanza set the tone:

'Here was a man to hold against the world,

A man to match the mountains and the sea.'

The last four lines of the last stanza leave no doubt about the esteem Markham felt for Lincoln:

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