Poems by Vachel Lindsay

Vachel Lindsay is an American original.  He tramped his way through middle America selling his pamphlet, "Rhymes for Bread".  He was quite mad and killed himself for love of Sarah Teasdale.  His son lived on Johns Island, SC, and I knew VL's granddaughter in college.

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.

Honor Among Scamps

We are the smirched. Queen Honor is the spotless.
We slept thro’ wars where Honor could not sleep.
We were faint-hearted. Honor was full-valiant.
We kept a silence Honor could not keep.

Yet this late day we make a song to praise her.
We, codeless, will yet vindicate her code.
She who was mighty, walks with us, the beggars.
The merchants drive her out upon the road.

She makes a throne of sod beside our campfire.
We give the maiden-queen our rags and tears.
A battered, rascal guard have rallied round her,
To keep her safe until the better years.

Springfield Magical [Illinois]

In this, the City of my Discontent,
Sometimes there comes a whisper from the grass,
“Romance, Romance – is here. No Hindu town
Is quite so strange. No Citadel of Brass
By Sinbad found, held half such love and hate;
No picture-palace in a picture-book
Such webs of Friendship, Beauty, Greed and Fate!”

In this, the City of my Discontent,
Down from the sky, up from the smoking deep
Wild legends new and old burn round my bed
While trees and grass and men are wrapped in sleep.
Angels come down, with Christmas in their hearts,
Gentle, whimsical, laughing, heaven-sent;
And, for a day, fair Peace have given me
In this, the City of my Discontent!

The Broncho That Would Not Be Broken

A little colt – broncho, loaned to the farm
To be broken in time without fury or harm,
Yet black crows flew past you, shouting alarm,
Calling “Beware,” with lugubrious singing…
The butterflies there in the bush were romancing,
The smell of the grass caught your soul in a trance,
So why be a-fearing the spurs and the traces,
O broncho that would not be broken of dancing?

You were born with the pride of the lords great and olden
Who danced, through the ages, in corridors golden.
In all the wide farm-place the person most human.
You spoke out so plainly with squealing and capering,
With whinnying, snorting, contorting and prancing,
As you dodged your pursuers, looking askance,
With Greek-footed figures, and Parthenon paces,
O broncho that would not be broken of dancing.

The grasshoppers cheered. “Keep whirling,” they said.
The insolent sparrows called from the shed
“If men will not laugh, make them wish they were dead.”
But arch were your thoughts, all malice displacing,
Though the horse-killers came, with snake-whips advancing.
You bantered and cantered away your last chance.
And they scourged you, with Hell in their speech and their faces,
O broncho that would not be broken of dancing.

“Nobody cares for you,” rattled the crows,
As you dragged the whole reaper, next day, down the rows.
The three mules held back, yet you danced on your toes.
You pulled like a racer, and kept the mules chasing.
You tangled the harness with bright eyes side-glancing,
While the drunk driver bled you – a pole for a lance –
And the giant mules bit at you – keeping their places.
O broncho that would not be broken of dancing.

In that last afternoon your boyish heart broke.
The hot wind came down like a sledge-hammer stroke.
The blood-sucking flies to a rare feast awoke.
And they searched out your wounds, your death-warrant tracing.
And the merciful men, their religion enhancing,
Stopped the red reaper, to give you a chance.
Then you died on the prairie, and scorned all disgraces,
O broncho that would not be broken of dancing.

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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

20 Responses

  1. James D. says:

    Dr. Fleming,

    In Lindsay’s day, a period from roughly the end of Reconstruction up until the Great Depression, the Midwest seemed ascendant. It was rising quickly in business and industry, political influence, banking, as well as cultural influences in literature, poetry, music, etc. It seemed certain to eclipse the Northeast in terms of importance. Then, after the Great Depression, especially in the lead up to WWII, the power in Middle America greatly diminished. One point of evidence was the attacks on the America Firsters, which greatly diminished the political power of the Heartland. I know that G. Edward Griffin, and others, possibly crackpots, noted that one of the purposes of the creation of the Federal Reserve was to remove banking power from the hinterlands and re-concentrate it back in New York City. There must be other causes. Do you have any insight on this?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The Midwest began rising to cultural dominance after the War Between the States. It was partly a matter of timing: The Northeast was played out–farmlands depleted, overpopulated, spiritually demoralized by an effete leadership, but the trans-Mississippi West was still in development.

    Also, the Midwest was an intersection between North and South. Northeastern Ohio, for example was Yankee, while Southwestern Ohio (around Cincinnati) was southern. I like to think of the period 1870 to 1920 as the Tarkington years, but Tarkington had already diagnosed the illness by WW I in his great trilogy, beginning with The Magnificent Ambersons.

    The descent would have been a good deal slower than it was, if political and economic leaders of the Midwest had not made the disastrous mistake of getting cheap labor from former slaves in the Deep South. A famous mayor of Chicago actually sent empty train cars to transport them to Chicago to work as domestic servants. During WW II, because of labor shortages in manufacturing, more and more were imported to work in the factories of Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, with what should have been foreseeable results.

    There were other factors, including evil agricultural policies that encouraged agribusiness and depressed small farms and thus small towns, mass entertainment that made life in Belvedere Illinois seem not worth living compared with Chicago and New York. Sinclair Lewis, a strange bird, shared some of the hatred of the rubes but he had a real affection for them also, and his portrayal of the embittered heroine of Main St is a good diagnosis, but also that strange romantic Mr Babbit, and the Dodsworths.

    Finally, and perhaps most fatally, the Midwest, which was originally a sort of truce area between Northern and Southern Anglos got flooded by Germans, Irish, Scandinavians, Polacks, Hunkies, and Dagos. It is not that any of these groups was particularly harmful, but that the mixture was too varied to assimilate. At the end of the Magnificent Ambersons, BT observes that the immigrants are standing taller and are less subservient than their parents, and he hopes for the best. Glenway Wescot, in Good bye Wisconsin–a book that really must be read by any sober American–lamented the displacement of his people by Central Europeans.

    I have spent a lot of my life in the Upper Midwest. Illinois is mostly a hopeless place, but Wisconsin–apart from Madison and Milwaukee–is pretty wholesome. But, as you go North from the border, you pass through German Monroe, Swiss New Glarus, Norwegian Mt Horeb and ultimately hit the Big Lake they call Gitchee Gummee at Superior, which is dominated by Scandinavians, Germans, and Polacks like Tony Bukosky. It is as bizarre a part of the USA as Cajun Country or coastal South Carolina.

    As interesting and charming as it is, in a rough and crude way, the Youper culture, stretching perhaps from Michigan’s UP across the South Shore of Superior to Western Minnesota and perhaps Fargo, does not even contain the barest rudiments of civilization. The name-brand world of USA has not overwhelmed the mom and pop world of diners an drive-ins–Dairy Queen is probably the biggest food chain. The whole region is burnt-out, dying of rust (like the mother in one of Bukosky’s stories), but it is infinitely richer and more interesting than the entire state of Illinois.

  3. James D. says:

    Dr. Fleming,

    Thank you for this. When I read the poems and read a little biography of Lindsay, I instantly thought of Booth Tarkington. At you suggestion, several years ago, I read most of his novels. He really captured that era and made it come alive in my mind. I have lived most of my life in an area that can be seen either as the eastern edge of the Midwest or the heart of Appalachia. Many Western Pennsylvanians consider the area to be part of the northeast, but they have so little self awareness, that they don’t realize how much more they have in common with ethnic areas of Ohio and northern WV than they do with Philadelphia. Until the past two decades, our area was similar to the Youperland you describe. We were largely immune to name-brand USA. We were the last market in the US to get a Wal-Mart and the older people here were so provincial and cheap that most chains didn’t even bother coming into our market. Twenty years ago, many of the large national home builders just skipped right over Western PA, because the people here rarely built new houses. They inherited them from relatives or bought old houses and fixed them up. In my line of work, we track the percentage of income people use for their housing. Nationally, this is near 30%, but much higher in big cities. In Western PA, it was the lowest in the country, around 20%. Sadly, all of this has changed. We are now a hipster hotbed and have succumbed to all of the wastefulness and consumerism of the coasts. Twenty years ago, locals were outraged when PNC made all of their ATM’s “push 1 for English and push 2 for Spanish” despite the fact that we had no Hispanic population to speak of. PNC knew what they were doing, softening us up for the influx.

  4. Dot says:

    Factory Windows are always Broken: Factories in times past and broken in Fall River to resurrect in Gaston.

    Honor among the scamps: Yes

    Springfield Magical: True

    The Broncho That Would Not Be Broken: Me

  5. Michael Strenk says:

    Surely we should have krauts, micks and squareheads if we are to have the rest.

  6. Raymond Olson says:

    Thanks. I obviously haven’t read enough Vachel Lindsay. Or Booth Tarkington, though I’ve read at least four novels of his. Or Sinclair Lewis, though I’ve read all his Twenties novels except Main Street.

    To their names let me add another Midwesterner I’ve just returned to, James Jones. I read From Here to Eternity when a teenager and thought I’d never read a better novel. During the last several days and in expectation of soon seeing Terrence Malick’s film of it, I read The Thin Red Line, Jones’ second World War II novel, which concentrates on a single infantry company during the Battle of Guadalcanal. It’s the best novel of combat I’ve ever read (I’ve read a fair number of them, especially World War I novels). Jones was often gauche stylistically, yet his gift for quick, incisive characterization is astonishing, allowing him to conjure vivid psychological and physical portrait after portrait–a couple dozen, at least–to keep 500-plus pages completely riveting. (Not that–in case anyone was worried–I abandoned my project in the classics. I also have just finished Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in Rolfe Humphries’ suave and engaging translation and the Penguin Classics translation of Cicero’s De Natura Deorum.)

  7. Dot says:

    Honor among Scamps

    Yes, there is hope.

  8. Dot says:

    Honor among the Scamps

    Yes, and the thin blue line matters supreme.

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Let’s not leave out Hunkies, Bohocks, Chinks, Nips, Frogs, Canucks, Limeys, and Redskins. Squarehead is often synonymous with Kraut but can include Scandihoovians except Finlanders (a term some Finns object to, though I don’t know why, any more thban I know why people known as Polacks in their own language insist on being called Poles in English. The Bulgars are the one group with a legitimate grievance, since their name–Bougar–has given us Bugger.

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    James Jones I have never read, though George Garret, who was a friend and admire of JJ, wrote pieces on him. Edgar Lee Masters wrote a somewhat chaotic but powerful biography of Lindsay, which I was once read, in which ELM gives vent to his feelings about the group that seized control of American publishing and did what it could to destroy American letters.

  11. Michael Strenk says:

    Ahh, but you missed the slow pitch. “And don’t call me Shirley!”
    I would be very interested in a list of combat novels dealing with WWI from Raymond Olson.

  12. Jacob Johnson says:

    I was just up near Clam Lake Wisconsin in the last week of April, camping for five days in the national forest. I had not been there for eight years and it was a very welcomed excursion from modernity. However, when we stopped at the “Kwik Trip” for roadside relief after several days of this, walking into the mini-store and hearing Robert Plant’s tortured cat impression from the radio blasting through the PA instantly shattered the pictures of elk, grouse, pine trees and purdy lakes happily bouncing around in my head.

  13. Raymond Olson says:

    Mr. Strenk, I’m happy to oblige. During the centennial of the Great War, I read as many as I could find of the books about it by veterans, under which rubric I corralled nurses and doctors at field hospitals, ambulance drivers, and persons whose land got in the way as well as soldiers. Here are the works of fiction I read that are set largely on the battlefield (an asterisk before the title indicates I think of it as outstanding):

    Under Fire (1916) Henri Barbusse
    Civilization 1914-1917 (1918) Georges Duhamel
    The Silence of Colonel Bramble (1918) André Maurois
    The Secret Battle (1919) A. P. Herbert
    Through the Wheat (1923) Thomas Boyd
    *Life in the Tomb (1924, 1930, 1955) Stratis Myrivilis
    *The Case of Sergeant Grischa (1927) Arnold Zweig
    *The Spanish Farm Trilogy (1927) R. H. Mottram
    All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) Erich Maria Remarque
    Schlump (1928) Hans Herbert Grimm
    *War (1928) Ludwig Renn
    Armistice and Other Memories (1929) R. H. Mottram
    Bretherton: Khaki or Field Gray? [alternate title, “G. B.”] (1929) W. F. Morris
    Death of a Hero (1929) Richard Aldington
    Falcons of France (1929) Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
    Return of the Brute (1929) Liam O’Flaherty
    Fear (1930) Gabriel Chevallier
    Generals Die in Bed (1930) Charles Yale Harrison
    The Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) Siegfried Sassoon
    The Patriot’s Progress (1930) Henry Williamson
    Company K (1933) William March
    *Winged Victory (1934) V. M. Yeates
    *Paths of Glory (1935) Humphrey Cobb
    Salt of the Earth (1935) Jozef Wittlin
    It Was Like This (1936) Hervey Allen
    They Gave Him a Gun (1936) William J. Cowen

  14. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Ray, could you pick out, say, half a dozen to start with? I’ve read all of Sassoon’s memoirs. (Any thoughts on Robert Graves’ “Goodbye to All That”?) What about Duhamel–I’ve read much of his fictionalized autobiography and find him very good. Remarque used to be widely read, and I did enjoy, some 60 years ago, “All Quiet”. Herbert was a funny satirist, though I suppose a book about the war would not be much fun. Hervey Allen was part of the Charleston Renaissance, and every girl I knew in high school was reading “Anthony Adverse” for which reason I never touched it.

    How about Sapper MacNeil? He wrote columns for London newspapers and his war experiences led to the creation of the beloved Bulldog Drummond–the books have little to do with the films. Or John Buchanan, who was too old for active service but was an officer in France?

  15. Michael Strenk says:

    Thank you Mr. Olson and Dr. Fleming. I’m grateful. I certainly have my work cut out for me.

  16. Raymond Olson says:

    I’ll try.

    Life in the Tomb (1924, 1930, 1955) Stratis Myrivilis. Almost a memoir of service on the Southern Front in Italy. The author is from Lesbos.

    The Backwash of War (1916) Ellen N. La Motte. AND The Forbidden Zone (1929) Mary Borden. Two American nurses’ reports, both very short. Read them in succession; their authors knew and worked with each other.

    Winged Victory (1934) V. M. Yeates. An autobiographical novel by an English fighter pilot who barely outlived its publication. The grind of combat is nowhere better conjured or more dire.

    Katrin Becomes a Soldier (1930) Adrienne Thomas. An intensely realistic novel about a girl com ing to adulthood in Metz, which was washed over or harrowed by the war throughout the duration.

    A Soldier on the Southern Front / Sardinian Brigade / A Year on the High Plateau (1938) Emilio Lussu. A memoir of the Italian or Southern Front during 1916-17. The first title is used by recent editions.

    The Spanish Farm Trilogy (1927) R. H. Mottram. Each volume of trilogy takes a different perspective on the same basic events in Flanders. THE forgotten classic novel of the war.

    I’m a little surprised, but these six (seven if you separate the nurses’ books) are my favorites, unshakably. I known the others you mention, and I must add that Herbert’s The Secret Battle (1919) is quite worthwhile, though not at all funny; Churchill liked it and wrote what became its introduction or preface in later editions. Allen’s journalistic memoir, Toward the Flame (1926), is an honorable achievement, too; Allen was wounded physically and psychologically by his experiences, but there’s in it none of the rhetorical bait-and-switch emotionalism of today’s self-conscious traumatic stress sufferer.

  17. Robert Reavis says:

    Now that’s impressive!! Or at least I am impressed and perhaps too easily but to rattle that list off is remarkable. WWI is the most neglected of all causes, turning points and departures from what was once upon a time.

  18. Frank Brownlow says:

    Edmund Blunden wrote a memoir, too, Undertones of War.

  19. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, it is a good read. He’s not a bad poet, either, He had a strange career–teaching in Hong Kong and living on in to the 1970s. I remember reading an obituary. I’ll put up some of his poems.

  20. Raymond Olson says:

    Tom–I realize I haven’t answered your other queries. For me, most of the famous English memoirs of the war don’t work. They become arid and tiresome once they leave the front. Duhamel’s novel is unmemorable though worthwhile as a physician’s perspective. Remarque’s novel and its immediate armistice sequel, The Road Back, are good enough reading, but the combat and post-armistice novels of Ludwig Renn, War and After War are better as literature. Renn is an interesting figure, a son of minor German nobility who absconded to–for wont of a better term–the people, eventually becoming a Communist after writing the two novels I’ve cited. The novels are distinguished by a terseness that is astonishing for German; only one sentence in both books occupies four lines of printed text in English, and I have it on good authority that this brevity is his hallmark in German. He had excellent translators into English, Edwin and Willa Muir. He changed his name to that of his protagonist in the war novels, and he lived in East Berlin after the second war, dying there at 90 in 1979.

    I only very recently discovered Renn, and I hadn’t run across Sapper McNeile until you told me above. I’ll scuffle up some of his war writings.

    By John Buchanan, do you perhaps mean John Buchan, who set two novels during the war? No, I haven’t read them, but now I probably shall.