Classic Poetry: Its Mutilation By Modern Reproductions – The Word is ‘Miles’ not ‘Mules’

I bought a book of poetry last year called “A Treasury of Poems: A Collection of the World’s Most Famous and Familiar Verses” compiled by Sarah Anne Stuart. As I flipped through, reading at random, I came across a favorite by Emily Dickinson — “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking” — that I had memorized as a child. Learning “by heart” was one of my favorite pastimes and I memorized many poems, quotations, and Bible passages and verses, from the age of at least ten. It soothed and comforted me to be able to bring up the words in my mind. We had no computers or cell phones to make them appear at the speed of thought. Just our brains.

I began to read this Dickinson favorite, but stopped halfway through in horror. The words of the poem I know and love are:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again
I shall not live in vain.

Imagine reading this instead, published as an original and faithful rendering of Emily Dickinson’s beloved poem:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one lonely person
Into happiness again
I shall not live in vain.

I instantly knew this for a very prosaic interpretation of those fifth and sixth lines, instead of the beautiful original ones. I think of younger generations of children and adults who trust these words to be those of Emily Dickinson, and I shudder at the way this deliberate mis-quote will affect future readers. It is as if a small part of an old and irreplaceable Ming vase were scraped and painted over with crayon. Desecrated.

This clumsy interpretation leaves no room for the reader to see and feel the lovely imagery of the “fainting robin”. And the internet is quoting so much wrong, it’s like a computer virus has been deliberately planted in our classic literature. In the past, we have had brilliant men and women of letters to fall back upon. We still have them, but their voices are faint, drowned out among the blare and babble of deliberate and reckless ignorance.

The Right Kind of People – With the Wrong Word

Recently I received a comment on “The Right Kind of People” which is by the poet Edwin Markham, best known for “The Man with the Hoe”. I had not only quoted the poem, The Right Kind of Peoplebut had given my own interpretation.

The poem begins:

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.

The comment corrected me on the line “to rest his miles”, saying that the wording was “to rest his 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 and 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.


NOTE: in the poetry book first mentioned, “A Treasury of Poems”, I looked up Edwin Markham, but he only appeared once in the authors index. The poem was “Outwitted”. It is a brief, but powerful, four-line poem. In those few words, there was a typo. (Needless to say, I do not recommend this book). In the 1936 Doubleday book, “The Best Loved Poems of the American People”, I never caught one typo in its 648 pages of poetry. Neither have I found any discrepancy in “One Hundred and One Famous Poems”, a smaller volume, printed in 1958. It was published by Contemporary Books and I love the editor’s preface, written by Roy J. Cook. Here are his words:

This is the age of science, of steel — of speed and the cement road. The age of hard faces and hard highways. Science and steel demand the medium of prose. Speed requires only the look — the gesture. What need then, for poetry? Great need! There are souls, in these noise-tired times, that turn aside into unfrequented lanes, where the deep woods have harbored the fragrances of many a blossoming season. Here the light, filtering through perfect forms, arranges itself in lovely patterns for those who perceive beauty. — Roy J. Cook, editor.

By now, that editor would be turning over in his grave.


Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening


Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.