Here’s a poem that had a powerful effect on me when I first read it fifty years ago:
The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.
Today, for some reason, this poem flashed through my mind, and I just had to look it up and find out about its author and the context in which it was written. I learned that it was penned by poet Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn in 1916, after she had visited a factory mill in South Carolina to see for herself that child labor was a reality in 20th century America. She looked out of a window, and what she saw inspired this simple, understated four-line summary of a great evil and injustice. Poetry is powerful.
Sarah wrote in her autobiography that her early poems were “sunbonnets,” but her later ones were “burning points.” The change came because of her involvement in a movement that identified itself as “Christian Socialism.” She looked at issues of injustice in American society in the light of the moral values Jesus expressed through his life and teachings and felt strongly that he would have her be a pacifist, work for women’s suffrage and prison reform, and against child labor, the death penalty and lynching. Her pulpit was her poetry.
I thought these few days before Holy Week, it might be good to look at Jesus through her radical poet eyes:
Thanks to St. Matthew, who had been
At mass-meetings in Palestine,
We knew whose side was spoken for
When Comrade Jesus had the floor.
“Where sore they toil and hard they lie,
Among the great unwashed swell, I…
The tramp, the convict, I am he;
Cold-shoulder him, cold-shoulder me.”
The Dives’ door, with thoughtful eye,
He did tomorrow prophesy: –
“The Kingdom’s gate is low and small;
The rich can scarce wedge through at all.”
“A dangerous man,” said Caiaphas,
“An ignorant demagogue, alas!
Friend of low women, it is he
Slanders the upright Pharisee.”
For law and order, it was plain,
For Holy Church, he must be slain.
The troops were there to awe the crowd:
And “violence” was not allowed.
Their clumsy force with force to foil
His strong, clean hands he would not soil.
He saw their childishness quite plain
Between the lightnings of his pain.
Between the twilights of his end
He made his fellow-felon friend:
With swollen tongue, and blinding eyes,
Invited him to Paradise.
The lines I like the best are, from stanza two, “‘The tramp, the convict, I am he; Cold-shoulder him, cold-shoulder me,'” and from the last stanza, “He made his fellow-felon friend: With swollen tongue, and blinding eyes, Invited him to Paradise.” His “fellow-felon friend” – a poetic bullseye.
— Pastor George Van Alstine