Poems: Vachel Lindsay

Factory windows are always broken.

Factory windows are always broken.
Somebody's always throwing bricks,
Somebody's always heaving cinders,
Playing ugly Yahoo tricks.

Factory windows are always broken.
Other windows are let alone.
No one throws through the chapel-window
The bitter, snarling, derisive stone.

Factory windows are always broken.
Something or other is going wrong.
Something is rotten--I think, in Denmark.
End of factory-window song.

Let not young souls be smothered out before

Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world's one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.
Not that they starve; but starve so dreamlessly,
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap,
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve,
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

To the United States Senate

And must the Senator from Illinois
Be this squat thing, with blinking, half-closed eyes?
This brazen gutter idol, reared to power
Upon a leering pyramid of lies?

And must the Senator from Illinois
Be the world's proverb of successful shame,
Dazzling all State house flies that steal and steal,
Who, when the sad State spares them, count it fame?

If once or twice within his new won hall
His vote had counted for the broken men;
If in his early days he wrought some good —
We might a great soul's sins forgive him then.

But must the Senator from Illinois
Be vindicated by fat kings of gold?
And must he be belauded by the smirched,
The sleek, uncanny chiefs in lies grown old?

Be warned, O wanton ones, who shielded him —
Black wrath awaits. You all shall eat the dust.
You dare not say: "To-morrow will bring peace;
Let us make merry, and go forth in lust."

What will you trading frogs do on a day
When Armageddon thunders thro' the land;
When each sad patriot rises, mad with shame,
His ballot or his musket in his hand?

In the distracted states from which you came
The day is big with war hopes fierce and strange;
Our iron Chicagos and our grimy mines
Rumble with hate and love and solemn change.

Too many weary men shed honest tears,
Ground by machines that give the Senate ease.
Too many little babes with bleeding hands
Have heaped the fruits of empire on your knees.

And swine within the Senate in this day,
When all the smothering by-streets weep and wail;
When wisdom breaks the hearts of her best sons;
When kingly men, voting for truth, may fail: —

These are a portent and a call to arms.
Our protest turns into a battle cry:
"Our shame must end, our States be free and clean;
And in this war we choose to live and die."

Note: The election of William Lorimer, a typical Chicago politician then and now, was confirmed by the Senate but overturned in Illinois when a politician revealed he had been paid $1000 (about $25,000 2019 for his vote).  He was replaced by a long line of Republicans and Democrats, most of whom fit Lindsay's description.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. Harry Colin says:

    Thanks for sharing more poetry. I was unfamiliar with Lindsay, but enjoyed these pieces. Anyone who can describe our ruling oligarchs so accurately and succinctly deserves our attention.

    I was moved to read more about the man but learning of the poor fellow’s suicide by consuming Lysol has greatly tempered my enthusiasm for an early lunch.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Lindsay was quite mad–it ran in the family. In college, I knew a very fine person who was his granddaughter. She also suffered. One of the better works of literary history produced in the USA was Edgar Lee Masters’ somewhat chaotic biography of his friend Lindsay. The book will never be reprinted, if only because of Masters’ reasoned diatribe against the aliens who dominated New York publishing. Masters’ Lincoln the Man should be required reading for all authentic American citizens.

    In some ways, he was not much as a poet, but he was a superb ranter. I have a copy of his wonderful book entitled something like “Adventures while Preaching the Gospel of Beauty.” It recounts his crazed project of tramping across Middle America preaching nothing less than the Gospel of Beauty to farmers, laborer, and shopkeepers. What a country we had in those days! Filled with the cranks, eccentrics and Don Quixotes who saw a good deal further than the money-grubbers so well skewered by Mark Twain. I neglected to post one of my favorite Lindsay poems, “The Bronco that would not be broken.” I’ll try to remedy that. I’d like Ray Olson to comment on Lindsay, if he would.

  3. Raymond Olson says:

    Vachel Lindsay! I haven’t thought of him in a while, though not in a long time, because he was still read to elementary school classes in the Fifties, and my mother recalled “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” and “The Congo”, perhaps from choral-reading them in college. In any event, she had some movements to go with Lindsay’s hammer-blow downbeats. I seem to remember my older brother doing an impromptu “Congo”, but perhaps he didn’t. The point being that Lindsay wrote performance instructions in the margins of those poems and others, such as “The Daniel Jazz”. He was trying to weld together parlor poetry, the soap-box harangue, and follow-the-leader social dancing, suggesting appropriate gospel and early jazz tunes to facilitate crowd-participation “happenings”. I take it he was not unsuccessful. What was he like as what is now called a performance poet? There are recordings of him on YouTube, though they probably present him dialed down, especially if they are acoustic rather than electrical recordings.

    A calmer classroom and patriotic holiday piece was his “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”, by which I remember being enchanted in a short film (animated?) on TV as well as when a teacher used it to focus us in Lincoln-worship. Looking at it again just now, I see that it represents Lincoln’s spirit as a bit of a Wilsonian: “He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn / Shall come;–The shining hope of Europe free”.

    Lindsay was a sucker for populism and progressivism, but his work gives the impression that he was innocent of Marx and Bakunin. But he still hated Republicans. From that, I deduce that he was not a bad guy, just crazy.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Ray, yes, he was, indeed, crazy. His populism was naive and positive. He loved the people of the Midwest and he occasionally strayed into something like poetry. He is someone from this “neck of the woods” to celebrate.”

  5. Raymond Olson says:

    I wish Utah Phillips had recorded some of Lindsay, but I suppose he balked at Lindsay’s now non-PC words and images. The way I’ve heard Phillips deliver Wobbly verses is how I imagine Lindsay might have his.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Remember, I am happy to put up reasonably decent poems recommended by readers.