ESSAY: “The Poetry of Jesus” by Edwin Markham

Edwin Markham (1852–1940) was a popular American literary figure during the first half of the twentieth century whose oeuvre fuses social justice concerns with religious faith. He gained international renown with his poem “The Man with the Hoe,” which, inspired by a Jean-François Millet painting of the same title, protests the plight of the exploited laborer. In addressing the issues of his day Markham looked to Jesus, who he considered an embodiment not only of peace, love, and other such virtues but of poetic genius as well. His essay “The Poetry of Jesus,” reprinted below, first appeared in the December 1905 issue of The Homiletic Review. Emphasis is mine.

Earth gives us hint and rumor of a divine beauty that broods above us, an ideal splendor that completes the real. To express that beauty is the perpetual aspiration of the poet. Poetry expresses this beauty in words; religion in deeds. So Jesus, as the supreme religious genius of the world, carried the vision of the poet—

The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration and the poet’s dream.

This light is the light of the ideal; this consecration is the consecration to the service of humanity; and this dream is the dream of the social federation of the world. Toward these glorious finalities all religion labors and all poesy aspire.

Jesus, like every great poet, was stung with the pain of genius, the passion for perfection, the yearning for the ideal. No wonder, then, that He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Out of the long collision between the is and the ought-to-be, between the world that exists and the world that awaits us in the future, springs that majestic sorrow, that noble reticence, that touches with its shadow all elevated and poetic natures.

Upon Greece came the passion for beauty, upon Palestine the passion for righteousness. Jesus carried both ideals in His heart, for He saw the glory of the lilies in the furrow and also the perfidy of the oppressors who walk over graves. He was moved not only by the beauty of holiness, but also by the holiness of beauty.

Jesus preached artistically as the true poet always preaches; He twined the truth with the beauty. For the most part He spoke in symbol, in parable, leaving His hearer to point the moral—leaving the truth to be inferred from the beauty. If His art-feeling seems meager and His insistence upon beauty scant, let us remember that He was forced to spend most of His priceless life in teaching a few of the primary principles of conduct. Still, in spite of all obstacles, the inborn poetry of His nature was continually breaking forth through the crevices of His conversation. His message was flung forth in telling metaphor, vivid simile, pointed parable—the chief machinery of the poet. He unsouled Himself in the poet’s way, because the poet’s way is the natural and spontaneous utterance of the heart.

Feeling ever the pity and terror of our existence—its sad perversity, its pathetic brevity, and its tremendous import—still His poet’s heart took loving note of the beauty and wonder never wholly lost from these gray roads of men. He did not fail to note the wayward wind that bloweth where it listeth, the red evening sky that means fair weather, the cloud out of the west that brings the shower, the tempest in the sea, and the calm that follows after the storm. Nor did He overlook the birds of the air that feed on the Father’s bounty in the open fields and lodge in the branches of the mustard-trees; nor the green grass that glories in the field to-day and to-morrow is cast into the oven.

He knew all these, and He knew also the homely aspects of the day’s work—the bottling of the new wine, the sifting of the wheat with fans, the digging of the fallen ox from the pit, the casting of the fish-nets into the sea. He saw the young virgins trimming the lamps, the bowed women grinding at the mill, the housewife hiding the leaven in the measure of meal, and the mother forgetting the pangs of labor in the joy over the new-born child.  

We can believe, too, that He often stopped in His serious steps to behold the sower scattering seed in the broken ground; the fields whitening for harvest; the workmen storing the wheat in barns; the reapers binding the tares into bundles for the burning; the ox bending his neck to the burden of the yoke; the builder on the wall rejecting the imperfect stone; the hen gathering her chickens under her wings at night; the swine filling their bellies with empty husks; the doves sunning themselves upon the open housetops; the ravens, neither sowing nor reaping, yet feeding from the Father’s field; the sparrows falling to the ground, yet noticed in heaven; the sheep following the shepherd because they know his voice.

Again observe the poet’s glance, the lyric utterance, and the delicacy of feeling in the passages that make even the bird sand the flowers upbraid us! “Behold the fowls of the air, for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. . . . And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Who does not feel the idyllic charm of these words, their naiveté and sweetness of spirit?

There is not only a delicate beauty in the words of Jesus, but also an artistic severity of expression. He is always intense, yet always restrained. He has no wasted word, no needless image, no riot of emotion, no efflorescence of oriental fancy. Dante does not have more severity of style. Every utterance has the modesty of nature, the instinctive breeding, the artistic reserve. The Man of Galilee was in deadly earnest; and earnestness tends to sweep away the gargoyle and leave the naked beauty of the column. He had the grand style—the power to say a significant thing with rigid simplicity of expression.

There was, perhaps, no great originality in many of the images used by Jesus; many of them existed in the folklore and scriptures of His time. Still His words carry a power unknown to the words of other men. There is a livingness in them as tho they sprang from secret springs at the world’s center. While others were looking at the shell of a thing, He seized it by its pulsing heart.

There is also a fine concision and unity of vision in every utterance of Jesus, whether beatitude or parable. Compare His “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled,” with the elaborate eloquence of Isaiah: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfieth not?”

The story of the Prodigal Son finds an analogue in the fourteenth of Hosea. But how different the forms of utterance! In Jesus the story is an arrow that goes straight and clear to the target. In Hosea it is a stream that wanders through green places and loiters by blossoming banks before it reaches the sea. Jesus sweeps His images out of many ancient writings; but in the fire of His imagination they are all fused into a beautiful and artistic whole. Here is the wandered child come back from the empty husks that He took for happiness. Here is the poet’s theology, and the poet’s way of telling it. How simple its message, how sweet its humanity!

Again, in Ezekiel, we have the promise that the wandered sheep shall be delivered out of all places where they have been “scattered in the cloudy and dark day.” They shall be brought to their own land and fed “upon the mountains of Israel, by the rivers.” The promise goes eloquently on, catching up a hundred idyllic and poetic details. Jesus condenses all this into the straight-going parable of one lost sheep. All the overplus is swept away, and the crux of it all is struck into relief with a few words that live forever in the memory of men.

He does not give us the ornate eloquence of David, who sees the sun like “a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoicing as a strong man to run a race.” Nor does He speak of the high God as covering Himself with light as with a garment and stretching out the heavens like a curtain. He does not use the elaboration of Isaiah, who describes the last days with glowing color: “Moreover the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days, in the day that the Lord bindeth up the breach of His people and healeth that stroke of their wound.” Jesus speaks of this glory with an austere simplicity: “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the Kingdom of their Father.” There is no more impressive figure in literature—“the righteous shall shine forth as the sun.”

Jesus enforces a principle by seizing on definite and radical images, the mark of the poetry of intensity. Jesus had the poet’s art that makes common things speak vividly the spiritual facts of our existence. The tree of evil fruit is not merely ignored; it is hewn down, and hewn at the root; it is not left to rot—it is cast into the fire. The man who sets his hand to the plow of the kingdom might think that to hold on was quite enough—but this is not enough; he is told that he must not even look back. Again, the rich do not have mere difficulty in entering heaven; they seem shut out: “It is easier for a camel to go through the needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” And the men of the new life are figured not merely as willing servants, but rather as eager servants standing through the long night watches with robes upgathered in their hand, with lamps trimmed and burning, all ready to spring to the door at the first knock of the returning Master.

The earnestness of Jesus leads him ever to take the positive ground. He sees the Kingdom of heaven “taken by violence.” He does not say simply, “Bear the cross”; He says, “Take up the cross.” The disciple does not merely bear some burden laid upon him; he seeks opportunities for burden-bearing. And how sweetly poetical is the tender assurance that his yoke is “easy,” his burden “light”!

The same intensity of utterance is seen in His antitheses, as when He says, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled.” Here in impressive balances the minute yodh and tittle of Hebraic script are weighed against the eternity of heaven and earth.

There is sometimes in the words of Jesus a terrific majesty of utterance. Recall Him in that fateful hour in the Temple, overthrowing the tables of the money-changers, replying to scribe and Pharisee and Sadducee who take counsel how they may ensnare Him in His talk. He is not now the young prophet with the mild eyes, the soft, serious words: He is not the Lamb, but the Lion, of God. The thunders of a mighty poetry are in His words as He hurls His seven denunciations against the hypocrites. In one breath they are “whited sepulchers”; in the next they are “serpents, offspring of vipers,” that shall not escape the judgment of hell.

At the last there rushes into His words a strain of piercing pathos. He remembers Jerusalem, and His long desire to make her a holy city, a city of friends. Piercingly tender his cry: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”

But there are many passages giving sweeter and softer strains, as when He throws a romantic color over life, telling how each man is called to his great moment of decision. Shall he sell all his possessions to buy the field that holds the hidden treasure? Measured by the worth of this field, all a man’s gains and glories are but the flying litter of the street. Again and again Jesus calls us to this poetic adventure in quest of the beautiful ideal.

And with what tenderness He declares that His coming Kingdom shall be a great wedding-festival, when at midnight, at the end of days, there shall go forth a cry, “Behold, the Bridegroom cometh.” Here are suggestions of beautiful mystery and poetry—hints that each sundered soul is to find its one God-given mate at last. Then, too, may there not here be wonder beyond wonder? For where the Bridegroom is, will there not also be the Bride?

Jesus never touches the thought of the end of the world save with words colored with high poetic seriousness. In His parable of the sheep and the goats we have a dramatic compression of our earthly life into a brief spectacle of judgment. We see the two multitudes, one passing to the right hand and the other to the left hand of the King. Nothing in all poetry surpasses the dignity and humanity of this little drama.

The story of the coming of the Son of Man in the last days is all one rapid outline of a vast poem of pity and terror. The Son of Man shall appear—not from an humble manger, for He shall come as “the lightning that lighteneth out of one part under heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven.” No hero of romantic story was ever described with such poetic splendor.

The destruction of the world order, following on His coming, is also pictured in terrific images. It shall be like the all-destroying flood of Noah that swept cities and peoples to their doom. It shall be like the destruction of the loose-living and easy-going people of Sodom when fire and brimstone rained from heaven. All terrible is the ruin waiting to rush upon this self-seeking world of men. In that day of reckoning let no one seek to save any worldly goods. Solemn and awful will be the separations: “There shall be two men in a bed: one shall be taken and the other left. Two women shall be grinding together; one shall be taken and the other left. Two men shall be in the field: one shall be taken and the other left.” And in that day shall the righteous shine forth “as the sun in the Kingdom of the Father.” Here are figures of impressive simplicity and beauty. So passes before us in a few brief strong strokes the outlines of an immense drama that dwarfs every other drama of time to a mere tumult of ants in the corner of a forgotten field.

Citation: Edwin Markham, “The Poetry of Jesus,” The Homiletic Review: An International Monthly Magazine of Current Religious Thought, Sermonic Literature and Discussion of Practical Issues 50, no. 6 (December 1905).

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