Sam Walter Foss: Minor Poet with a Major Message

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Sam Walter Foss: Minor Poet with a Major Message

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Platform talk by John Hoad, Leader Emeritus of the Ethical Society of St. Louis



Delivered on July 11, 1999



Let me introduce you to a very special person -- a very special poet. Let me introduce you to Sam Walter Foss. He was born June 19, 1858, and he died February 26, 1911, at age 52. Most of his collections of verse were published in the 1890's. So Foss was in a situation similar to ours, in the transition from one century to another. We think of our century as a time of massive wars and of technological creation. We face the new century hoping we can do better next time around.

But the nineteenth century was also a time of wars around the globe and especially of the American Civil War, which took the lives of tens of thousands of American men. One of Foss's books was entitled Songs of war and Peace, published in 1899. However, he too urged the theme of optimism. The last newspaper column he wrote, while in hospital awaiting an operation that would fail to save his life, was on "Optimism." A boisterous faith in humanity characterized his poetry, even though he had a sharp eye for human foibles and failings.

The first Foss poem I met was a poem read at the memorial of Clayton Chism, who was a member here at the Ethical Society. It was his favorite and is the poem by Foss most frequently included in anthologies of poetry. You can find it in One Hundred and One Famous Poems, edited by Roy Cook. It is called, "The House by the Side of the Road." This is how it goes:

THE HOUSE BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD

He was a friend to man, and he lived
In a house by the side of the road -- Homer

There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
In the place of their self-content;
There are souls like stars, that dwell apart,
In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze their paths
Where highways never ran --
But let me live by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

Let me live in a house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by --
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner's seat,
Or hurl the cynic's ban --
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I see from my house by the side of the road,
By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
The men who are faint with the strife.
But I turn not away from their smiles nor their tears,
Both parts of an infinite plan --
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead
And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon
And stretches away to the night.
But still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice,
And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
Like a man who dwells alone.

Let me live in my house by the side of the road --
It's here the race of men go by.
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish -- so am I;
Then why should I sit in the scorner's seat,
Or hurl the cynic's ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

Why do I speak of Foss as a minor poet? Judging poetry can be very subjective, but there is clear evidence that the literary experts are not taken with Foss. I searched my own collection of reference works. There was no "Foss" in:

  • Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature
  • Cambridge Biographical Dictionary
  • Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia
  • Foerster's American Poetry and Prose
  • Standard Book of British and American Verse
  • Oxford Book of American Verse
  • Louis Untermeyer doesn't include him in Modern American Poetry
  • and he's definitely not in the Mentor Book of Major American Poets
With the help of a librarian, Mary Johnson (a friend of mine in Alton), I did find him in two places: American Authors 1600-1900 rather patronizingly calls him a "verse writer," but the Dictionary of American Biography honors him as "poet, journalist, humorist, and librarian."

Foss was a country boy from New Hampshire, worked on his father's farm, went to school in the winter, lost his mother at age four, graduated from Brown University in 1882, then got into writing as publisher, editor, and journalist. He was the librarian of the Somerville Public Library in Massachusetts from 1898 till his death in 1911. He married a minister's daughter and they had a daughter and a son. The son died in World Was I on the fields of France. He attended College Avenue Methodist Church in Somerville, Massachusetts, which is a church still in existence and active.

Methodist though he was, he could have been versifying Ethical Culture philosophy. This is Foss's idea of "The True Bible."

THE TRUE BIBLE

What is the world's true Bible -- ‘tis the highest thought of man,
The thought distilled through ages since the dawn of thought began.
And each age adds a word thereto, some psalm or promise sweet --
And the canon is unfinished and forever incomplete.
O'er the chapters that are written, long and lovingly we pore --
But the best is yet unwritten, for we grow from more to more.

Let us heed the voice within us and its messages rehearse;
Let us build the growing Bible -- for we too must write a verse.
What is the purport of the scheme toward which all time is gone?
What is the great aeonian goal? The joy of going on.

And are there any souls so strong, such feet with swiftness shod,
That they shall reach it, reach some bourne, the ultimate of god?
There is no bourne, no ultimate. The very farthest star
But rims a sea of other stars that stretches just as far.
There's no beginning and no end: As in the ages gone,
The greatest joy of joys shall be -- the joy of going on.

He liked to poke fun at sanctimonious ritual, and here is one of his humorous verses, called "An Informal Prayer," or "The Prayer of Cyrus Brown." Throughout the poem he quotes from different religious characters.

AN INFORMAL PRAYER -- THE PRAYER OF CYRUS BROWN

"The proper way for a man to pray"
said Deacon Lemuel Keyes,
"and the only proper attitude
is down upon his knees."

"Nay, I should say the way to pray,"
said Reverend Dr. Wise
"is standing straight with outstrecthed arms
and rapt and upturned eyes."

"Oh, no, no, no." said Elder Snow
"Such posture is too proud
A man should pray with eyes fast closed
and head contritely bowed."

"It seems to me his hands should be
astutely clasped in front.
With both thumbs a pointing toward the ground."
Said Reverend Hunt.

"Las' year I fell in Hodgkins well
head first," said Cyrus Brown,
"With both my heels a-stikin' up,
my head a-p'inting down,
An' I made a prayer right there an' then;
Best prayer I ever said;
The prayingest prayer I ever prayed,
A-standin on my head."

And Foss noted the anger that religious debate can bring out. This is a poem called "Odium Theologicum," which is a familiar word for the hatred produced by theology.

ODIUM THEOLOGICUM

I

They met and they talked where the crossroads meet,
   Four men from the four winds come,
And they talked of the horse, for they loved the theme,
   And never a man was dumb.
The man from the North loved the strength of the horse,
   And the man from the East his pace,
And the man from the South loved the speed of the horse,
   And the man from the West his grace.

So these four men from the four winds come,
   Each paused a space in his course
And smiled in the face of his fellow man
   And lovingly talked of the horse.
Then each man parted and went his way
   As their different courses ran;
And each man journeyed with peace in his heart
   And loving his fellow man.

II

They met the next year where the crossroads meet,
   Four men from the four winds come:
And it chanced as they met that they talked of God,
   And never a man was dumb.
One imagined God in the shape of a man.
   A spirit did one insist.
One said that nature itself was God.
   One said that he didn't exist.

They lashed each other with tongues that stung,
   That smote as with a rod;
Each glared in the face of his fellow man,
   And wrathfully talked of God.
Then each man parted and went his way,
   As their different courses ran;
And each man journeyed with wrath in his heart,
   And hating his fellow man.
The title of his last book of poems, published in 1907, and republished in 1911, with eight additional poems, expresses what Foss was all about. He called it, Songs of the Average Man. (Remember he's speaking long before the feminist revolution, so when he says "man," he does intend "man and woman." And also, as poets know, "man" is a much easier word to rhyme with than "human".) But for Foss an "average man" was an extraordinary person, for each of us, in his view, is special.

Here is his poem, "The Man From The Crowd."

THE MAN FROM THE CROWD

Men seem as alike as the leaves on the trees,
As alike as the bees in a swarming of bees;
And we look at the millions that make up the state
All equally little and equally great,
And the pride of our courage is cowed.
Then Fate calls for a man who is larger than men --
There's a surge in the crowd -- there's a movement -- and then
There arises a man that is larger than men --
And the man comes up from the crowd.

The chasers of trifles run hither and yon,
And the little small days of small things go on,
And the world seems no better at sunset than dawn,
And the race still increases its plentiful spawn.
And the voice of our wailing is loud.
Then the Great Deed calls out for the Great Men to come,
And the Crowd, unbelieving, sits sullen and dumb --
But the Great Deed is done, for the Great Man is come --
Aye, the man comes up from the crowd.

There's a dead hum of voices, all say the same thing,
And our forefathers' songs are the songs that we sing,
And the deeds by our fathers and grandfathers done
Are done by the son of the son of the son,
And our heads in contrition are bowed.
Lo, a call for a man who shall make all things new
Goes down through the throng! See! he rises in view!
Make room for the men who shall make all things new! --
For the man who comes up from the crowd.

And where is the man who comes up from the throng
Who does the new deed and who sings the new song,
And makes the old world as a world that is new?
And who is the man? It is you! It is you!
And our praise is exultant and proud.
We are waiting for you there -- for you are the man!
Come up from the jostle as soon as you can;
Come up from the crowd there, for you are the man --
The man who comes up from the crowd.

From some lines in that poem, we see that Foss didn't like the dead hand of the past to hold the present to ransom. The other most quoted poem by Foss, after "The House by the Side of the Road," is a humorous satire that bears on that theme of letting precedent overrule the present. (It is a poem that has recently seen revival among motivational speakers.)

It's called "The Calf-Path" and this is how it goes.

THE CALF-PATH

One day, through the primeval wood,
A calf walked home, as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do.

Since then two hundred years have fled,
And, I infer, the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.

The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bell-wether sheep
Pursued the trail o'er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bell-wethers always do.

And from that day, o'er hill and glade,
Through those old woods a path was made;
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged, and turned, and bent about
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because ‘twas such a crooked path.
But still they followed -- do not laugh --
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked,
Because he wobbled when he walked.

This forest path became a lane,
That bent, and turned, and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street,
And this, before men were aware,
A city's crowded thoroughfare;
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.

Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed the zigzag calf about;
And o'er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one calf near three centuries dead.
They followed still his crooked way,
And lost one hundred years a day;
For thus such reverence is lent
To well-established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach,
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.

But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf!
Ah! many things this tale might teach --
But I am not ordained to preach.

Foss's works are unfortunately all out of print. But somebody put me on to Barnes and Noble website on the Internet. You pick "out of print" and you bring up Sam Walter Foss. Through that source I have gradually collected all his five volumes of poems, all neatly bound and from the 1890's and this last one from the first decade of this century.

I could keep you here an hour or two sharing Foss's delightful characterizations and caricatures of people. He tells of the young woman who discoursed endlessly and in scholarly fashion about philosophers while doing crochet. Her lover can't get a word in and eventually goes out and shoots himself. The poem ends: "Unshocked / She talked and talked and talked and talked."

He pictures an old blind man who fiddles and sings, and people form a ring around him and there is "laughter choked with teardrops" for the listeners know that "every life's a blind man's tune that's played on broken strings."

He tells of a little girl talking with his father and she says, "Daddy, did God make me?"

"Yes, of course," Daddy says, "God made you."

And then she looks up at her rather plain haggard old father and says, "And Daddy, did God make you?"

"Oh yes," says the father, "God made everybody."

So then the little girl looks in the mirror and sees how pretty she looks and she looks up at rather plain Daddy and says, "Daddy, I think God is improving at his trade."

He was hard on his own profession of journalism for its muck-raking: "Run we through our printing press / Myriad miles of nastiness," he wrote in a poem called, "The New Journalism." But in the poem "The Press," he saw the importance of the newspaper that (as he put it) "writes our history while we are waiting."

I'll close with two poems. One, called "The Coming Century," shows Foss's remarkable imagination, as he sees us drawing energy from the core of the earth (where volcanoes get theirs) and power from the wind (we've done a bit of that), building with solidified air (I'm not sure we know how to do that), and flying back and forth over the Atlantic. Remember as you hear this, that he was writing within a few years of the Wright Brothers' first lift-off in flight, when many other distinguished people were saying that there was no future in air travel. He also had a faith in psychic energy, that we haven't been able to tap yet.

This is how "The Coming Century" goes:

THE COMING CENTURY

If the century gone, as the wise ones attest,
   Exceeds all the centuries before it,
Then the century coming will better its best
   And tower immeasurably o'er it.
And, if miracles now are coming to pass
   Right here in your and my time,
Why, miracles then will be thicker than grass
   And as common as flies are in fly time.

We will send down our pipes to the Earth's burning core
   Where the smithy of Vulcan is quaking,
And the fires that make the volcanoes outpour
   We will use for our johnny-cake baking.
And then we will bridle and harness the tide
   And make the pulse beat of the ocean
Provide the propulsion when Baby shall ride
   And keep his small carriage in motion.

We will hitch the East wind to the crank of our churn
   And make us a butter to "brag on";
By projecting a psychical impulse we'll turn
   The wheels of a furniture wagon.
We'll make yellow squashes from nice yellow dirt
   Scooped up from our pastures and beaches;
On Sahara some chemical compound we'll squirt,
   And the sand will evolve into peaches.

And a hundred strong men by concentring their will
   Ride straight to one point, like a plummet,
Will turn upside down a respectable hill
   And spin it around on its summit.
Our buildings we'll build of solidified air
   'Way up from the sill to the skylight,
With trimmings of brownstone surpassingly fair
   Of solidified air of the twilight.

We will fly through the air from New York to the Rhine,
   Through Germany, Lower and Upper,
Stop off, if we like, in Geneva to dine
   And come back to New York for our supper.
If we don't wish to fly we will throw our own thought,
   Yes, each throw his thought to his sweetheart,
By a kind of a mental telepathy shot,
   A method by which heart can meet heart.

We shall learn of the beings who people the stars
   And add to the cosmical mirth, then,
By telling new jokes to the people of Mars
   And hear then laugh back on the earth, then.
Ah, many trans-cosmic debates shall be whirled,
   And long be the parleys between us;
One end of the dialogues fixed in this world,
   And the other located in Venus.
Finally, his poem, "The Trumpets." Foss went into hospital after grappling with some indeterminate illness for two years in the Christmas of 1910, where he wrote his article on "Optimism" and where he wrote his final poem, just before the operation. The operation did not save him and he died on February 26, 1911. So this is his swan song.

I have shared Foss with you because, first off, I found him so fascinating myself; secondly I was so concerned that this poet who has so much to say has been so neglected and none of his work reprinted, other than one or two poems in anthologies; and because I believe that the optimism that he shared is an optimism needed during this transition for us. Lionel Tiger, in his book, Optimism, The Biology of Hope, tells us that optimism is a survival mechanism of the human race. You have to have faith -- faith in your future -- personally and nationally.

And so I give you Foss and his final poem, "The Trumpets."
THE TRUMPETS

[This was Mr. Foss's last poem, and was written just before Christmas, 1910, when he thought he might have to submit to an operation. The end came February 26, 1911.]

The trumpets were calling me over the hill,
   And I was a boy and knew nothing of men;
But they filled all the vale with their clangorous trill,
   And flooded the gloom of the glen.

"The trumpets," I cried, "Lo, they call from afar,
   They are mingled with music of bugle and drum;
The trumpets, the trumpets are calling to war,
   The trumpets are calling -- I come."

The trumpets were calling me over the Range,
   And I was a youth and was strong for the strife;
And I was full fain for the new and the strange,
   And mad for the tumult of life.

And I heard the loud trumpets that blew for the fray,
   In the spell of their magic and madness was dumb;
And I said, "I will follow by night and by day,
   The trumpets are calling -- I come."

The trumpets were calling and I was a man,
   And had faced the stern world and grown strong;
And the trumpets mere calling far off, and I ran
   Toward the blare of their mystical song.

And they led me o'er mountains, ‘neath alien skies,
   All else but their music was dumb;
And I ran till I fell, and slept but to rise,
   Lo, the trumpets are calling -- I come.

The trumpets are calling, I've come to the sea,
   But far out in the moon-lighted glow,
I still hear the trumpets, they're calling to me,
   The trumpets are calling -- I go.

And lo, a strange boatman is here with his bark,
   And he takes me and rows away, silent and dumb;
But my trumpets! my trumpets! they peal through the dark,
   The trumpets are calling -- I come.


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