“The Right Kind of People” by Edwin Markham, is About Attitude

The poem “The Right Kind of People” by Edwin Markham, is about attitude. Our attitude in the way we see people anywhere, whether good or ill, will color how we view people everywhere. The poem is about two different travelers, with two very different world views — and two different visions and expectations of the same city.

The first traveler who stops to rest with the old man, looks out over the plains and sees a puffed up city (proud) spread out (taking up more room than they deserve). The wise old man asks a simple, probing question, “What kind of people were they where you came from?” or “Whence you came?” The packman’s face twists into a scowl and you can hear the snarl in his voice as he spits out his answer, “Why knaves and fools.” And because that was his opinion of the people he left behind, the wise man tells him that’s the kind of people he will find before him. Either he will see no one but the knaves and fools, of whom every city has its share, or he will suspect everyone of being knaves and fools.

The first traveler’s attitude asserts itself in his description of the city as “proud”, spreading out across the plains. Because the city looks prosperous, he assumes their good fortune came dishonestly (knaves), and, therefore, he sees the people as beneath him (fools). It may even be significant that he arrives at noon, where he sees the city under a pitiless sun, every flaw picked out and apparent. And you can be sure he’s looking for those flaws — because he views everything and everyone in the light of his own bitterness and disappointment in life, and in the world in general.

The second traveler and stranger comes at dusk and pauses to speak to the wise man. Possibly it’s the time of day when he sees the city spread out below in the last glow of the dying sun, when forgiving twilight softens and rounds out harsh features and sharp edges. The beauty of it causes him — with great joy — to cry out the question about the sort of people in “your bright city”. He also notices the towers reaching upward toward the heavens. Hope is what his heart sees. The packman never mentioned the towers because his view of the world was flat and never got off the ground. Hope never found a foothold in his heart.

When the second traveler is asked what sort of people where he came from, he doesn’t scowl. He smiles and answers, “Good, true, and wise.” And, of course, since that was his attitude about the people where he came from, that’s what he would find in the city ahead.

It is also significant that the first traveler distanced himself and the wise man from the city below, speaking of the people as “they”. The second traveler connected the wise man with the bright city in the simple word “your” bright city. It may also be meaningful that the first traveler, a “packman”, must rest, as if from traveling a long, weary road, though the day is but half over; while the second traveler, a pilgrim who travels light, merely pauses, though he has traveled a full day. The poet is saying that a bad attitude is a heavy burden, and makes all of life a long and weary journey.

The Right Kind of People
by Edwin Markham

Gone is the city, gone the day,
Yet still the story and the meaning stay:
Once where a prophet in the palm shade basked
A traveler chanced at noon to rest his miles.
“What sort of people may they be,” he asked,
“In this proud city on the plains o’erspread?”
“Well, friend, what sort of people whence you came?”
“What sort?” the packman scowled;
“Why, knaves and fools.”
“You’ll find the people here the same,” the wise man said.

Another stranger in the dusk drew near,
And pausing, cried, “What sort of people here
In your bright city where yon towers arise?”
“Well, friend, what sort of people whence you came?”
“What sort?” The pilgrim smiled,
“Good, true, and wise.”
“You’ll find the people here the same,” the wise man said.

(from “The Best Loved Poems of the American People”, Doubleday 1936)

NOTE ABOUT THE WORD “Miles” in the poem:
I received a comment after posting this that the word “miles” should be “mules”. My first reaction was that the writer was being facetious and I laughed. But the more I looked at it, the more I knew, “Hey. This person isn’t kidding.” Now don’t get me wrong. I want to be corrected if something I say is wrong. That’s for my own benefit as well as for those who read this blog.

So then I started Googling. Every quote of this line on blogs (not books) that I read was “to rest his mules“. And, try as I might, I could not find a quote of the poem from a solid source. However, I own several books of poetry. One is “The Best Loved Poems of the American People”, originally published by Doubleday in 1936. Edwin Markham, the author of the poem, was still alive in 1936, from whom, I’m sure, the compiler, Hazel Fellerman, as well as Doubleday, must have gotten permission to print. In 1936, the line was “a traveler chanced at noon to rest his MILES — not mules. Edwin Markham died in 1940, four years after this very popular publication. Surely, within that time, the author’s intent would have been made known if it was wrong. It was not wrong.

My next point in favor of ‘miles” not “mules”, is that the poem would be pointless if the packman was not carrying his own load. If mules carried it for him, he would not be as weary. Besides, just the word “mules” looks ludicrous among the careful wording of the poem, which is couched in a narrative whose whole intent is revealed as a statement about attitude. Throughout the poem, the poet shows us a person with a burden, how far he can carry it without it getting him down – the MILES that hurt his feet, his back, and his mind. A “packman” is not just the leader of a pack-TRAIN, with mules to pull the long length of goods. A packman can be a peddler, or just a traveler with a load on his back.

In this poem, the packman has a bad attitude even though he has only traveled half a day — from dawn till noon. His attitude makes his load even heavier. In the poem, another traveler comes along at dusk. He is cheerful, even though he has been on the road all day. His miles have been longer, but his burden has not been as heavy as the packman’s, because the packman shoulders a weighty load of anger, bitterness, and envy.

In “The Right Kind of People”, Edwin Markham weaves a tapestry, picturing not only the story itself, but the intent behind it. Never once does he mention the word “attitude”. He draws us into the picture. He tells us nothing and everything. We see ourselves in the packman, carrying burdens on our life’s journey that we need not bear, and wearied long before we reach our destination. We step out of the picture with a renewed determination to be more like the pilgrim in the second verse, who could walk many miles and still wear a smile.

The word, my friend, is miles — not mules.

One of the best expressions of the impact of attitude comes from the words written by Charles “Chuck” Swindoll, and is simply titled “My Attitude”.

My Attitude
by Charles “Chuck” Swindoll

The longer I live,
The more I realize the impact of attitude on life.
Attitude, to me, is more important than facts.
It is more important than the past,
Than education, than money,
Than circumstances, than failures, than successes,
Than what other people think, say, or do.
It is more important than appearance, than giftedness or skill.
It will make or break a company, a church, or a home.
The remarkable thing is
That we have a choice every day
Regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day.
We cannot change our past.
We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way.
We cannot change the inevitable.
The only thing we can do
Is play on the one string we have,
And that is our attitude.
I am convinced that life is l0% what happens to me
And 90% how I react to it.
And so it is with you.
We are in charge of our attitudes.


9 thoughts on ““The Right Kind of People” by Edwin Markham, is About Attitude

  1. I’ve long said exactly as Chuck wrote, life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. Excellent piece.

  2. Pingback: Life is 10% fact, 90% attitude | We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in ... France

    • Sorry, Meredith, for not answering sooner, but I’ve been doing some internet research, and am appalled that the word “mules” has been substituted for “miles”. I can see where you would think that was the correct quote if you only get the quote from blogs on the internet. And you are right not to trust mine. Therefore, I am writing a post about the mutilation of classic poetry by modern reproductions. Thank you for commenting, and I hope the post will help poetry lovers walk more carefully among the land mines of false information out there. The line is “rest his miles”.

  3. Pingback: Recap of September 8, OPPC | One Page Poetry Circle


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