The Poetry of a Machine Age


THE truest definition of a gentleman is that he is a man who loves his work. This is also the truest definition of a poet. The man who loves his work is a poet because he expresses delight in that work. He is a gentleman because his delight in that work makes him his own employer. No matter how many men are over him, or how many men pay him, or fail to pay him, he stands under the wide heaven the one man who is master of the earth. He is the one infallibly overpaid man on it. The man who loves his work has the single thing the world affords that can make a man free, that can make him his own employer, that admits him to the ranks of gentlemen, that pays him, or is rich enough to pay him, what a gentleman’s work is worth.

The poets of the world are the men who pour their passions into it, the men who make the world over with their passions. Everything that these men touch, as with some strange and immortal joy from out of them, has the thrill of beauty in it, and exultation and wonder. They cannot have it otherwise even if they would. A true man is the autobiography of some great delight mastering his heart for him, possessing his brain, making his hands beautiful.

Looking at the matter in this way, in proportion to the number employed there are more gentlemen running locomotives to-day than there are teaching in colleges. In proportion as we are more creative in creating machines at present than we are in creating anything else, there are more poets in the mechanical arts than there are in the fine arts ; and while many of the men who are engaged in the machine shops can hardly be said to be gentlemen (that is, they would rather be preachers or lawyers), these can be more than offset by the much larger proportion of men in the fine arts, who, if they were gentlemen in the truest sense, would turn mechanics at once: that is, they would do the thing they were born to do, and they would respect that thing, and make every one else respect it.

While the definition of a poet and a gentleman — that he is a man who loves his work — might appear to make a new division of society, it is a division that already exists in the actual life of the world, and constitutes the only literal aristocracy the world has ever had.

It may be set down as a fundamental principle, that no matter how prosaic a man may be, or how proud he is of having been born upon this planet with poetry all left out of him, it is the very essence of the most hard and practical man that, as regards the one uppermost thing in his life, the thing that reveals the power in him, he is a poet in spite of himself, and whether he knows it or not.

So long as the thing a man works with is a part of an inner ideal to him, so long as he makes the thing he works with express that ideal, the heat and the glow and the lustre and the beauty and the unconquerableness of that man, and of that man’s delight, shall be upon all that he does. It shall sing to heaven. It shall sing to all on earth who overhear heaven.

Every man who loves his work, who gets his work and his ideal connected, who makes his work speak out the heart of him, is a poet. It makes little difference what he says about it. In proportion as he has power with a thing ; in proportion as he makes the thing, be it a bit of color, or a fragment of flying sound, or a word, or a wheel, or a throttle ; in proportion as he makes the thing fulfill or express what he wants it to fulfill or express, he is a poet. All heaven and earth cannot make him otherwise.

That the inventor is in all essential respects a poet toward the machine that he has made, it would be hard to deny. That with all the apparent prose that piles itself about his machine, the machine is in all essential respects a poem to him, who can question ? Who has ever known an inventor, a man with a passion in his hands, without feeling toward him as he feels toward a poet ? Is it nothing to us to know that men are living now under the same sky with us, hundreds of them (their faces haunt us on the street), who would all but die, who are all but dying now, this very moment, to make a machine live, — martyrs of valves and wheels and of rivets and retorts, sleepless, tireless, unconquerable men, pioneers of God ?

To know an inventor the moment of his triumph, — the moment when, working his will before him, the Machine at last, resistless, silent, massive pantomime of a life, offers itself to the gaze of men’s souls and the needs of their bodies, — to know an inventor at all is to know that at a moment like this a chord is touched in him strange and deep, soft as from out of all Eternity. The melody that Homer knew, and that Dante knew, is his also, with the grime upon his hands, standing and watching it there. It is the same song that from pride to pride and joy to joy has been singing through the hearts of The Men Who Make, from the beginning of the world. The thing that was not, that now is, after all the praying with his hands . . . iron and wood and rivet and cog and wheel. Is it not more than these to him standing before it there ? It is the face of matter — who does not see it ? — answering the face of the man, whispering to him out of the dust of the earth.

What is true of the men who make the machines is equally true of the men who live with them. The brakeman and the locomotive engineer and the mechanical engineer and the sailor all have the same spirit. Their days are invested with the same dignity and aspiration, the same unwonted enthusiasm, and self-forgetfulness in the work itself. They begin their lives as boys dreaming of the track, or of cogs and wheels, or of great waters.

As I stood by the track the other night, Michael the switchman was holding the road for the nine o’clock freight, with his faded flag, and his grim brown pipe, and his wooden leg. As it rumbled by him, headlight, clatter, and smoke, and whirl, and halo of the steam, every brakeman backing to the wind, lying on the air, at the jolt of the switch, started, as at some greeting out of the dark, and turned and gave the sign to Michael. All of the brakemen gave it. Then we watched them, Michael and I, out of the roar and the hiss of their splendid cloud, their flickering, swaying bodies against the sky, flying out to the Night, until there was nothing but a dull red murmur and the falling of smoke.

Michael hobbled back to his mansion by the rails. He put up the foot that was left from the wreck, and puffed and puffed. He had been a brakeman himself.

Brakemen are prosaic men enough, no doubt, in the ordinary sense, but they love a railroad as Shakespeare loved a sonnet. It is not given to brakemen, as it is to poets, to show to the world as it passes by that their ideals are beautiful. They give their lives for them, — hundreds of lives a year. These lives may be sordid lives looked at from the outside, but mystery, danger, surprise, dark cities, and glistening lights, roar, dust, and water, and death, and life, — these play their endless spell upon them. They love the shining of the track. It is wrought into the very fibre of their being.

Years pass and years, and still more years. Who shall persuade brakemen to leave the track ? They never leave it. I shall always see them — on their flying footboards beneath the sky — swaying and rocking — still swaying and rocking on to Eternity.

They are men who live down through, to the spirit and the poetry of their calling. It is the poetry of the calling that keeps them there.

Most of us in this mortal life are allowed but our one peephole in the universe, that we may see IT withal; but if we love it enough and stand close to it enough, we breathe the secret and touch in our lives the secret that throbs through it all.

For a man to have an ideal in this world, for a man to know what an ideal is, even though nothing but a wooden leg shall come of it, and a life in a switchhouse, and the signal of comrades whirling by : this also is to have lived.

The fact that the railroad has the same fascination for the railroad man that the sea has for the sailor is not a mere item of interest pertaining to human nature. It is a fact that pertains to the art of the present day, and to the future of its literature. It is as much a symbol of the art of a machine age as the man Ulysses is a symbol of the art of an heroic age.

That it is next to impossible to get a sailor, with all his hardships, to turn his back upon the sea is a fact a great many thousand years old. We find it accounted for not only in the observation and experience of men, but in their art. It was rather hard for them to do it at first (as with many other things), but even the minor poets have admitted the sea into poetry. The sea was allowed in poetry before mountains were allowed in it. It has long been an old story. When the sailor has grown too stiff to climb the masts he mends sails on the docks. Everybody understands — even the commonest people and the minor poets understand — why it is that a sailor, when he is old and bent and obliged to be a landsman to die, does something that holds him close to the sea. If he has a garden, he hoes where he can see the sails. If he must tend flowers, he plants them in an old yawl, and when he selects a place for his grave, it is where surges shall be heard at night singing to his bones. Every one appreciates a fact like this. There is not a passenger on the Empire State Express, this moment, being whirled to the West, who could not write a sonnet on it, — not a man of them who could not sit down in his seat, flying through space behind the set and splendid hundred-guarding eyes of the engineer, and write a poem on a dead sailor buried by the sea. A crowd on the street could write a poem on a dead sailor (that is, if they were sure he was dead), and now that sailors enough have died in the course of time to bring the feeling of the sea over into poetry, sailors who are still alive are allowed in it. It remains to be seen how many wrecks it is going to take, lists of killed and wounded, fatally injured, columns of engineers dying at their posts, to penetrate the spiritual safe where poets are keeping their souls to-day, untouched of the world, and bring home to them some sense of the adventure and quiet splendor and unparalleled expressiveness of the engineer’s life. He is a man who would rather be without a life (so long as he has his nerve) than to have to live one without an engine, and when he climbs down from the old girl at last, to continue to live at all, to him, is to linger where she is. He watches the track as a sailor watches the sea. He spends his old age in the roundhouse. With the engines coming in and out, one always sees him sitting in the sun there until he dies, and talking with them. Nothing can take him away.

Does any one know an engineer who has not all but a personal affection for his engine, who has not an ideal for his engine, who holding her breath with his will does not put his hand upon the throttle of that ideal and make that ideal say something ? Woe to the poet who shall seek to define down or to sing away that ideal. In its glory, in darkness or in day, we are hid from death. It is the protection of life. The engineer who is not expressing his whole soul in his engine, and in the aisles of souls behind him, is not worthy to place his hand upon an engine’s throttle. Indeed, who is he — this man — that this awful privilege should be allowed to him, that he should dare to touch the motor nerve of her, that her mighty forty-mile-an-hour muscles should be the slaves of the fingers of a man like this, climbing the hills for him, circling the globe for him ? It is impossible to believe that an engineer — a man who with a single touch sends a thousand tons of steel across the earth as an empty wind can go, or as a pigeon swings her wings, or as a cloud sets sail in the west — does not mean something by it, does not love to do it because he means something by it. If ever there was a poet, the engineer is a poet. In his dumb and mighty, thousand-horizoned brotherhood, Hastener of men from the ends of the earth that they may be as one, I always see him, — ceaseless — tireless — flying past sleep — out through the Night — thundering down the edge of the world, into the Dawn.

Who am I that it should be given to me to make a word on my lips to speak, or to make a thing that shall be beautiful with my hands — that I should stand by my brother’s life and gaze on his trembling track — and not feel what the engine says as it plunges past, about the man in the cab ? What matters it that he is a wordless man, that he wears not his heart in a book ? Are not the bell and the whistle and the cloud of steam, and the rush, and the peering in his eyes words enough ? They are the signals of this man’s life beckoning to my life. Standing in his engine there, making every wheel of that engine thrill to his will, he is the priest of wonder to me, and of the terror of the splendor of the beauty of power. The train is the voice of his life. The sound of its coming is a psalm of strength. It is as the singing a man would sing who felt his hand on the throttle of things. The engine is a soul to me — soul of the quiet face thundering past — leading its troop of glories echoing along the hills, telling it to the flocks in the fields and the birds in the air, telling it to the trees and the buds and the little, trembling, growing things, that the might of the spirit of man has passed that way.

If an engine is to be looked at from the point of view of the man who makes it and who knows it best; if it is to be taken, as it has a right to be taken, in the nature of things, as being an expression of the human spirit, as being that man’s way of expressing the human spirit, there shall be no escape for the children of this present world, from the wonder and beauty in it, and the strong delight in it that shall hem life in, and bound it round on every side. The idealism and passion and devotion and poetry in an engineer, in the feeling he has about his machine, the power with which that machine expresses that feeling, is one of the great typical living inspirations of this modern age, a fragment of the new apocalypse, vast and inarticulate and far and faint to us, but striving to reach us still, now from above, and now from below, and on every side of life. It is as though the very ground itself should speak, — speak to our poor, pitiful, unspiritual, matter-despising souls, — should command them to come forth, to live, to gaze into the heart of matter for the heart of God. It is so that the very dullest of us, standing among our machines, can hardly otherwise than guess the coming of some vast surprise, — the coming of the day when, in the very rumble of the world, our sons and daughters shall prophesy, and our young men shall see visions, and our old men shall dream dreams. It cannot be uttered. I do not dare to say it. What it means to our religion and to our life and to our art, this great athletic uplift of the world, I do not know. I only know that so long as the fine arts, in an age like this, look down on the mechanical arts there shall be no fine arts. I only know that so long as the church worships the laborer’s God, but does not reverence labor, there shall be no religion in it for men to-day, and none for women and children to-morrow. I only know that so long as there is no poet amongst us, who can put himself into a word, as this man, my brother the engineer, is putting himself into his engine, the engine shall remove mountains, and the word of the poet shall not; it shall be buried beneath the mountains. I only know that so long as we have more preachers who can be hired to stop preaching or to go into life insurance than we have engineers who can be hired to leave their engines, inspiration shall be looked for more in engine cabs than in pulpits, — the vestibule trains shall say deeper things than sermons say. In the rhythm of the anthem of them, singing along the rails, we shall find again the worship we have lost in church, the worship we fain would find in the simpered prayers and paid praises of a thousand choirs, — the worship of the creative spirit, the beholding of a fragment of creation morning, the watching of the delight of a man in the delight of God, — in the first and last delight of God. I have made a vow in my heart. I shall not enter a pulpit to speak, unless every word have the joy of God and of fathers and mothers in it. And so long as men are more creative and godlike in engines than they are in sermons, I listen to the engines.

Would to God it were otherwise. But so it shall be with all of us. So it cannot but be. Not until the day shall come when this wistful, blundering church of ours, loved with exceeding great and bitter love, with all her proud and solitary towers, shall turn to the voices of life sounding beneath her belfries in the street, shall she be worshipful, not until the love of all life and the love of all love is her love, not until all faces are her faces, not until the face of the engineer peering from his cab, sentry of a thousand souls, is beautiful to her, as an altar cloth is beautiful or a stained glass window is beautiful, shall the church be beautiful. That day is bound to come. If the church will not do it with herself, the great rough hand of the world shall do it with the church. That day of the new church shall be known by men because it will be a day in which all worship shall be gathered into her worship, in which her holy house shall be the comradeship of all delights and of all masteries under the sun, and all the masteries and all the delights shall be laid at her feet.


The world follows the creative spirit. Where the spirit is creating, the strong and the beautiful flock. If the creative spirit is not in poetry, poetry will call itself something else. If it is not in the church, religion will call itself something else. It is the business of a living religion, not to wish that the age it lives in were some other age, but to tell what the age is for, and what every man born in it is for. A church that can see only what a few of the men born in an age are for can help only a few. If a church does not believe in a particular man more than he believes in himself, the less it tries to do for him the better. If a church does not believe in a man’s work as he believes in it, does not see some divine meaning and spirit in it, and give him honor and standing and dignity for the divine meaning in it; if it is a church in which labor is secretly despised and in which it is openly patronized, in which a man has more honor for working feebly with his brain than for working passionately and perfectly with his hands, it is a church that stands outside of life. It is excommunicated, by the will of Heaven and the nature of things, from the only Communion that is large enough for a man to belong to or for a God to bless.

If there is one sign rather than another of religious possibility and spiritual worth in the men who do the world’s work with machines to-day, it is that these men are never persuaded to attend a church that despises that work.

Symposiums on how to reach the masses are pitiless irony. There is no need for symposiums. It is an open secret. It cries upon the housetops. It calls above the world in the Sabbath bells. A church that believes less than the world believes shall lose its leadership in the world. “ Why should I pay pew rent,” says the man who sings with his hands, “ to men who do not believe in me, to worship, with men who do not believe in me, a God that does not believe in me ? ” If heaven itself (represented as a rich and idle place, — seats free in the evening) were opened to the true laboring man on the condition that he should despise his hands by holding palms in them, he would find some excuse for staying away. He feels in no wise different with regard to his present life. “ Unless your God,” says the man who sings with his hands, to those who pity him and do him good, — “ unless your God is a God I can worship in a factory, He is not a God I care to worship in a church.”

Behold it is written : The church that does not delight in these men and in what these men are for, as much as the street delights in them, shall give way to the street. The street is more beautiful. If the street is not let into the church, it shall sweep over the church and sweep around it, shall pile the floors of its strength upon it, above it. From the roofs of labor — radiant and beautiful labor — shall men look down upon its towers. Only a church that believes more than the world believes shall lead the world. It always leads the world. It cannot help leading it. The religion that lives in a machine age, and that cannot see and feel, and make others see and feel, the meaning of that machine age, is a religion which is not worthy of us. It is not worthy of our machines. One of the machines we have made could make a better religion than this. Religion and art at the present moment, both blindfolded and both with their ears stopped, are being swept to the same irrevocable issue. By all poets and prophets the same danger signal shall be seen spreading before them both, jogging along their old highways. It is the arm that reaches across the age.



The main inconvenience that God has had in telling the truth upon the earth is that men are willing to believe only a little of it at a time. The great heretics of the church have been heretics, not by believing less, but by believing more than religion could believe. When enough truth is left out of a truth to make it small and prompt and possible, it finds no dearth of believers ; but when there is so much of a truth that it dares to be beautiful, it is not allowed to be called a truth. It is called an ideal. It is bounded off as poetry. Men look at it from over the wall, — some of them wistfully, some of them scornfully. The fable, “ It is too beautiful to be true ” is applied to it. Philosophy doubts it. Religion worries about it. Science denies it. To the poet alone, “ How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings ” is the one and the final description by which he knows that the thing that comes is a truth.

Whatever his age may be, it is by seeing that the actual truth of the age is more beautiful than the age can believe that he masters the age. He masters an age by appreciating it, by whispering its heart to it, by singing its self-respect. If he lives in an age of democracy, an age of crowds, he will make the crowd beautiful, or he will be crowded out by it. If he lives in an age of machines, the machine shall be beautiful, or he will be crushed by it. If every fibre of the age he lives in is penetrated with the machine, with the machine energy and the machine voice, if the destiny of man is linked with it, if nine tenths of his fellow men must live their lives with the machines, get their lives out of them and put their lives into them, no literary definition, be it ever so dauntless or ever so crowded with its swarm of poets, shall move him. “Any definition of literature, religion, or art, or of anything whatsoever,” he shall say, “ that shuts down a lid over the lives of the great body of mankind; ” any definition by one set of men that says to all the rest of men, “ These souls shall be machines for our souls,” is a dead definition of dead things. It shall only be believed by the dead. All the combined refinement of the world standing on the machines, and on the necks of the machines that are running the machines, and defining poetry to us day and night, shall not make men believe a definition like this. Poetry that can be confined to the top of a lid shuts itself fatally and irrecoverably out from the last chance that poetry can ever have of being poetry. Poetry that down in its heart, at least, is not vital enough and primeval and elemental enough to belong to all men is not worthy of a few men nor beautiful enough for one man. Any definition that divides the spirit, that entails beauty, that sets bounds to it, is cut off forever from where all beauty comes from, whether in the world we see around us, or the world within the world.

When it comes to pass that in order to make life continue to be beautiful upon the earth two things must be put together that never have been put together before, if a poet is a small poet and cannot see how to do it, he stops singing as poets are doing now, or he sings softly that he cannot sing, or that he would like to sing if he could, or he sings hesitation. In some wistful and pretty sadness and pale helpfulness he wanders about the world, unnoticed and unnoticing. He cannot feel the poetry of the machine because he has not mastered the machine. The machine has mastered him. The spirit that made the machine is not in him. The hearts of stokers shall pity him. He pities himself. A poet who pities himself is the essence of prose.

If he is a great poet, on the other hand, and if, in order to make life beautiful on the earth, two things must be put together that never have been put together before, it is the essence of his power that he, in the spiritual glow and splendor of his life, shall fuse the paradox into its eternal truism, shall bring together the blindly separated things and the blindly separated men, and make the world whole again. It belongs to him to take the two great characteristic impossibilities of the age he lives in, and blend them into one great possibility.

It is a blind universe. It is a few men in it who are the eyes. Poetry is a poet, — looking at it, seeing it as it is.

It is also a dull universe. Poetry is something men do with it. The poet is the man who makes us do it. We have never meant to let him make us do it. We cannot help it. Nature is a barbarian. A poet is born, and with gods and goddesses and fauns Greece steals into human life. Another poet is born and the Hebrew makes a conscience out of a cloud. Another poet is born and the world learns Galilee. The centuries while themselves away as best they can. Poor dull huddled souls are born in them, afraid of God and the dark. We die under a sky we would rather not know. We make gardens for ourselves, — parlors in the hills. We plant diagrams of beauty on the earth, and sing poems and thrum our serenades in rows of box. We go forth from under our geometric trees into the natural and the wild with suspicious and averted eyes. There comes a Wordsworth who makes the wilderness the great wide garden of the world, where the Lord walks forth upon the hills both day and night.

Poetry is the discovering of new connections. Science is the grudging acknowledgment of them. Religion is the world’s confession that the poets are right. One by one their dreams and moods, far-fetched and strange at first, are made the highway of the world’s ideals, until as the ages pass, like some vast unconscious habit of all life, old poems are breathed in us before we are born, into our souls and into our bodies, and we wake and greet this world at last, the humblest of us, all of us, heirs of the poets forever.

It is thus the eternal office of the poet, — the discovering that a discord is a harmony out of order. It is not a gracious office at first. He has the last word only because his first word lasts the longest. His song is out of the force that made the heavens and the earth. The heavens and the earth both sing his refrains. Slowly, a very little at a time, dazed, tired, stumbling, broken, humbled, this old hero of a world lifts its eyes and follows him.

Gerald Stanley Lee.