The art of poetry is to touch the passions, and its duty to lead them on the side of virtue. — Cowper
Lincoln, the Man of the People
By Edward Markham
WHEN the Norn Mother saw the Whirlwind Hour
Greatening and darkening as it hurried on,
She left the Heaven of Heroes and came down
To make a man to meet the mortal need.
She took the tried clay of the common roadï¿½
Clay warm yet with the genial heat of earth,
Dashed through it all a strain of prophecy;
Tempered the heap with thrill of human tears;
Then mixed a laughter with the serious stuff.
Into the shape she breathed a flame to light
That tender, tragic, ever-changing face.
Here was a man to hold against the world,
A man to match the mountains and the sea.
My brother-in-law said he memorized this poem for “declamation” back in the 1950’s, back when schoolchildren memorized poems about heroes. My urchins all thought he was making up the “Norn Mother.” Read the entire poem here.
Dr. Lloyd Huff was a professor at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas when I was an undergraduate student there. He taught English, was unabashedly sentimental, and at the same time inspiring and intelligent. He taught a Shakespeare class in which he told the students that every time he read Romeo and Juliet he hoped that somehow everything would turn out right for the “star-crost lovers.” He also invented something called “The Six Hundred Club.” Any freshman who memorized six hundred lines of selected poetry or any Shakespeare student who memorized six hundred selected lines from the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare could become a member of “The Noble Six Hundred.’ The mimeographed lines of poetry Dr. Huff gave out to all the freshmen in his English classes began with this note:
Because one of the fringe thrills of your life will be your ability to recall the magic of some literature’s greatest lines long after your college years, the following selections are offered for you to commit to memory. Successful completion of this endeavor entitles you to membership in that exclusive and august society,
THE SIX HUNDRED CLUB
The “selections” were poems like The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, America For Me by Henry van Dyke, and The Picture That is Turned Toward the Wall by Charles Graham. There’s also a couple of poems by Emily Dickinson, a portion of Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant, and The Last Leaf by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Some freshmen and some fellow English professors may have looked with disdain and superiority at Dr. Huff’s selections, but I’d wager he brought more magic and joy to more students than many an erudite explainer of T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. (Don’t shoot; I like T.S. Eliot, sometimes.)
As far as I can tell, Dr. Huff is retired and still lives in Abilene. And purely bragging, I am a member of “The Six Hundred Club.” (I memorized Shakespeare, not general poetry.)