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The Leaden-Eyed -- Vachel Lindsay

This week's theme: Poems with a Purpose.
(Poem #1069) The Leaden-Eyed
 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.
-- Vachel Lindsay
Art for Art's sake? Not quite. Love poems and nature poems, odes to
melancholy and cats, Life sliced and filleted, funnies and furies -- these
are all very well, but there's a special place in the poetic pantheon for
pieces propounding purely political principles: Poems with a Purpose.

Unfortunately, there are two dangers which such poems often run into, both
easily foreseen, but quite a bit harder to prevent. Firstly, there's the
possibility that the poet allows the moral, social or political aspects of
his poem to overwhelm the purely poetic ones; he is so caught up in _what_
he is saying that he loses sight of _how_ he's saying it. The result, more
often than not, is a stilted, overly didactic piece, the kind which
Coleridge, the later Wordsworth and Shelley wrote far too many of. It was
this danger that the Imagists were warning against with their tenet "Show,
don't tell"; it was this possibility that Archibald MacLeish was reacting to
when he wrote "A poem should not mean / but be" [1].

The second danger is, ironically, the exact obverse of the first: namely,
the possibility that the poem's readers respond, not to the purely poetic
merits of the verse, but to the political ones; they allow their agreement
(or lack thereof) with the poet's philosophy to cloud their judgement when
it comes to evaluating the poem per se [2]. There are two ways to avoid this
danger; the easy one is to retreat into platitudes that offend nobody (but
equally, please nobody). That way lies mediocrity.

The other, more difficult way is to do what Vachel Lindsay does in today's
poem: find something you feel strongly about, which nonetheless has not been
bromided to death by a thousand previous moralisers, express it in words
fresh enough to be powerful, and leave it at that. The reader will do the


[1] Poem #188, "Ars Poetica" -- Archibald MacLeish

[2] It might be argued that this is not a flaw: a poem that arouses strong
passions (favourable or otherwise) in its readers is a poem that's doing
_something_ right.


Here's a nice resource on Lindsay's life and works:

Here are some Imagist poets on the Minstrels:
Poet #Kreymborg -- Alfred Kreymborg
Poet #Sandburg -- Carl Sandburg
Poet #Pound -- Ezra Pound
Poet #D. -- H. D.
Poet #Williams -- William Carlos Williams

Here are some previous poems, each with their own respective Purposes:
Poem #26, Jerusalem  -- William Blake
Poem #592, Sonnet: England in 1819 -- Percy Bysshe Shelley
Poem #132, Dulce Et Decorum Est  -- Wilfred Owen
Poem #28, To Whom It May Concern  -- Adrian Mitchell

39 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Julian Tepper said...

Vachel Lindsay -- under-appreciated, notwithstanding the millions who
revere his work. His Congo, he feared, was popular only because his
rendition of it was so popular. For a marvelous example of the importance of
reading poetry aloud, even if one is alone, find a recording of Vachel
Lindsay's intense Congo.

Julian Tepper

Tfinnhead said...

Thomas. As always thanks for the intelligent commentary.

I remain your fan,

Phil Smith said...

Excuse me, I stumbled across this link while looking for Leaden-Eyed.

The poem was recited to us 25 years ago as we waited to be dropped off,
with no food or companion, for three days on small islands off the
coast of Maine. (an Outward Bound thing.)

I look it up 25 years later, read these comments, and am now curious.

If this was a poem with a purpose, what was the purpose? I know
nothing about Vachel Lindsay. The poem seemed, at the time, as an
inspirational reach a bit further in life.

Phil Smith

Felicity Pearson said...

Replying to Phil:

My take on the poem is that Lindsay is suggesting that the true shame of
"the world" (society) is how deadened and un-impassioned the working
classes are. That the suffering and disparity isn't really the issue,
it's the way society has created a class of people who don't think great
and deep thoughts, don't have opportunities to be singular, don't put
their energies and abilities to work for deeply held values, purposes,
or goals. The working classes have become sheep and oxen and have lost
their humanity.


You have an amazing post. I read it several times. Read a similar post in mine too! At

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