Central California Poetry Journal

Volume 96 Number 1

The Poetry of Central California Page 6101

The Poetry of Joaquin Miller

Table of Contents

A Concise Biography of Joaquin Miller

Comments on the selected poems

Selected poems by Joaquin Miller

Links to other Journal Pages

A Concise Biography of Joaquin Miller

Joaquin Miller was born Cincinnatus Hiner Miller on September 8, 1837. In the introduction to Volume One of JOAQUIN MILLER'S POEMS, published by Harr Wagner Publishing Co. in 1917 however, Miller wrote,

"I see that my birthday is set down in some books for 1841, and in others for 1842. This comes from the loss of the Bible...Papa gave the former year, according to his recollection of the trivial event, while mother insisted on the latter, both giving the same day of the month....I was born in a covered wagon, I am told at or about the time it crossed the line dividing Indiana from Ohio."

In a 1967 Biography by O.W. Frost, Twayne Publishers Inc, however, Miller's biographer establishes 1837 as the year of Millers birth. Frost also identifies Miller's covered wagon birth as a fabrication.

The name Joaquin was adapted from the legendary California bandit, Joaquin Murietta. Joaquin Miller described his decision to adopt the name at the conclusion of the Poem "Joaquin Murietta," in Volume II of his collected works.

"The third poem in my first London Book was called 'California,' but it was called 'Joaquin' in the Oregon book. And it was from this that I was in derision called "Joaquin." I kept the name and the poem too, till both were at least respected. But my elder brother, who had better judgement and finer taste than I, thought it too wild and bloody; and so by degrees it has been allowed to disappear, except this fragment, although a small book of itself to begin with." (see the poem "Joaquin Murietta" below.)

Joaquin Miller's parents were Quakers. Miller's father was a magistrate in Indiana. In 1852, his parents relocated their family to Oregon, traveling with two heavily laden wagons, eight oxen yoked to each, a carriage and two horses. Miller's family at the time consisted of his parents, three young boys and a baby girl. The three thousand mile trip took seven months and five days. The family settled in the Williamette Valley where they established a home and farm.

Miller, while still a boy headed to California with another boy during the early gold rush. He worked in a number of mining camps. He reported that he was severely wounded in a battle between the settlers near Mt. Shasta and the Modoc Indian Tribe when an arrow pierced his face and exited the back of his neck. The arrow passed close to the base of his brain. Although he eventually recovered from the wound, he suffered both physical and mental effects of the injury for at least a year. He later had little recollection of that period of time. He later survived other battles with northern California Indian groups, and had several altercations with the law over matters relating to the ownership of livestock and gun play.

Miller left Northern California and traveled to San Francisco. From there he claimed that he travelled to Nicaragua by ship, and then returned to Oregon. O.W. Frost reports however that the trip to Nicaragua was also a fabrication. In Oregon Miller attended college briefly, taught school, studied law, and was admitted to the bar. The lure of gold in Idaho was more than he could resist. He again headed for the gold fields.

Miller returned to Oregon again at the beginning of the Civil War with enough gold to build a new home and purchase a newspaper. Although his autobiography claims that this money was made as a gold miner, O.W. Frost comments that Miller enjoyed only moderate success as a miner in Idaho, earning enough to acquire a number of horses. With these horses, Miller entered the pony express business with Isaac Mossman. After Wells Fargo bought the business in 1862, Miller returned to the Williamette Valley. In his newspaper, The Eugene City Democratic Register Miller plead for an end to the Civil War, adopting the Quaker creed of his father. Miller's older brother went to war, and never returned to Oregon. Miller's anti war editorials were suppressed, and he again turned to mining. He was eventually elected to the position of Judge in a Southern Oregon community.

Miller left Oregon in 1870 and travelled to London, where his first book, Song of The Sierras was published in 1871. Miller also published his second book, Life Among The Modocs, in Europe. It was a success in Paris.

Joaquin Miller returned from Europe, and settled in Oakland California. After the death of his father in a farm accident, his mother came to live with him in Oakland, where she spent the last twenty years of her life. An enchanting interview of Margaret Miller by Isabel Darling appeared in Sunset magazine shortly before her death. In his last years Joaquin Miller lived on seventy-five acres in the Oakland Hills with a full view of the Golden Gate. He named his estate "The Hermitage, Oakland Heights." It was later renamed "The Hights." O.W. Frost remarks that the spelling was intended by the poet.

Joaquin Miller visited the Klondike during the Alaskan Gold Rush. He returned to The Hights after six months, exhausted from his Alaskan adventures, with thousands of dollars of gold dust, and $6,000 from W. R. Hurst for his Alaskan letters.

In his later years Joaquin Miller became known as "The Poet of The Sierras." He was a colorful figure who was well known in California literary and social circles. Six volumes of his collected poems and other writing were published in 1909. Joaquin Miller died on February 13, 1913. Selected Writings of Joaquin Miller, and Unwritten History, or My Life Among The Modocs were published by Urion Press in the 1970's.


Comments on The Selected Poems

Joaquin Miller's life and exploits would have become legendary if someone else had written his story. He chose the medium of poetry to tell the story of the American West at a time of rapid growth and change. Miller's life blended in his verses and in his prose with the subject matter. In a sense he invented himself. He left behind Cincinnatus, and became Joaquin. From a modern perspective, this blending of truth and fiction seems wholly unnecessary. The frontier life he actually lived is the stuff of legends. We must remember however, that he was a struggling poet who travelled to Europe. He presented in his verse and in person the spirit of the American West. In his selection of the name Joaquin, he solidified the image of rogue adventurer, and found an audience for his poetry. It is also important to remember that Miller became Joaquin not only in his literary life, but also in his life on the American frontier. He really was many of the things he claimed to be. Unfortunately his credibility suffered because some of the stories he told about his adventures proved in the end to be untrue.

Although it owes much in style and imagery to Europe, Joaquin Miller's poetry captures the essence of the American West. The poems included in this selection capture the essence of California. In the incredible fabrication that was his life, Joaquin Miller invented a new mythology, based largely upon himself, but also upon the people and places of the American West. Although Miller is not without his critics, we own him a debt of gratitude for capturing the spirit of the time in which he lived, and for helping us obtain a sense of place in Central California.

Selected Poems by Joaquin Miller

California's Cup Of Gold

The golden poppy is God's gold,
The gold that lifts, nor weighs us down,
The gold that knows no miser's hold
The gold that banks not in the town,
But singing, laughing, freely spills
Its hoard far up the happy hills;
Far up, far down, at every turn,--
What beggar has not gold to burn!

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Sound! Sound! Sound!
O colossal walls and crown'd
In one eternal thunder!
Sound! Sound! Sound!
O ye oceans overhead,
While we walk, subdued in wonder,
In the ferns and grasses, under
And beside the swift Merced!

Fret! Fret! Fret!
Streaming sounding banners, set
On the giant granite castles
In the clouds and in the snow!
But the foe he comes not yet,--
We are loyal, valiant vassals,
And we touch the trailing tassles
Of the banners far below.

Surge! Surge! Surge!
From the white Sierra's verge
To the very valley blossom.
Surge! Surge! Surge!
Yet the song bird builds a home,
And the mossy branches cross them,
And the tassled tree tops toss them
In the clouds of falling foam.

Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!
O ye heaven born and deep,
In one dread unbroken chorus!
We may wonder or we may weep,--
We may wait on God before us;
We may shout or lift a hand,--
We may bow down and deplore us,
But we may never understand.

Beat! Beat! Beat!
We advance, but would retreat
From this restless, broken breast
Of the earth in a convulsion.
We would rest, but dare not rest,
For the angel of expulsion
From this Paradise below
Waves us onward and . . . we go.

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Dead In The Sierras

His footprints have failed us,
Where berries are red,
And madroños are rankest.
The hunter is dead!

The grizzly may pass
By his half open door;
May pass and repass
On his path, as of yore;

The panther may crouch
In the leaves on his limb;
May scream and may scream,--
It is nothing to him.

Prone, bearded and breasted
Like columns of stone;
And tall as a pine--
As a pine overthrown!

His camp-fires gone,
What else can be done
Than let him sleep on
Till the light of the sun?

Ah, tombless! what of it?
Marble is dust,
Cold and repellent;
And iron is rust.

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Joaquin Murietta

Glintings of day in the darkness,
Flashings of flint and steel,
Blended in gossamer texture
The ideal and the real,
Limn'd like the phantom ship shadow.
Crowded up under the keel.

I stand beside the mobile sea,
And sails are spread, and sails are furl'd;
From farther corners of the world,
And fold like white wings wearily.
Some ships go up and some go down
In haste like traders in a town.

Afar at sea some white ships flee,
With arms stretch'd like a ghost's to me,
And cloud-like sails are blown and curl'd,
Then glide down to the under world.
As if blown bare in winter blasts
Of leaf and limb, tall naked masts
Are rising from the restless sea.
I seem to see them gleam and shine
With clinging drops of dripping brine.
Broad still brown wings flit here and there,
Thin sea-blue wings wheel everywhere,
And white wings whistle in the air;
I hear a thousand sea gulls call.
And San Francisco Bay is white
And blue with sail and sea and light.
Behold the ocean on the beach
Kneel lowly down as if in prayer,
I hear the maon as of dispair,
While far at sea do toss and reach
Some things so like white pleading hands
The ocean's thin and hoary hair
Is trail'd along the silver'd sands,
At every sigh and sounding moan.
The very birds shriek in distress
And sound the ocean's monotone.
'Tis not a place for mirthfulness.
but meditation deep, and prayer,
And kneelings on the salted sod,
And know the mightiness of God.

Dared I but say a phrophecy,
As sang the holy men of old,
Of rock built cities yet to be
Along these shining shores of gold,
Crowding athirst into the sea,
What wonderous marvels might be told!
Enough to know that empire here
Shall burn her loftiest, brightest star;
Here art and eloquence shall reign,
As o'r the wolf reared realm of old;
Here learned and famous from afar,
To pay their noble court, shall come,
And shall not seek or see in vain,
But look and look with wonder dumb.

Afar the bright Sierras lie
A swaying line of snowy white,
A fringe of heaven hung in sight
Against the blue base of the sky.

I look along each gaping gorge,
I hear a thousand sounding strokes
Like giants rending giant oaks,
Or brawny Vulcan at his forge;
I see pick axes flash and shine;
Hear great wheels whirling in a mine.
Here winds a thick and yellow thread,
A moss'd and silver stream instead;
And trout that leap'd its rippled tide
Have turned upon their sides and died.

Lo! when the last pick in the mine
Lies rusting red with idleness,
And rot yon cabins in the mold,
And wheels no more croak in distress,
And tall pines reassert command,
Sweet bards along this sunset shore
Their mellow melodies will pour;
Will charm as charmers very wise,
Will strike the harp with master hand,
Will sound unto the vaulted skies,
The valor of these men of old--
These mighty men of 'forty-nine;
Will sweetly sing and proudly say,
Long, long agone there was a day
When there were giants in the land.

Now who rides rushing on the sight
Hard down yon rocky long defile,
Swift as an eagle in his flight,
Fierce as winter's storm at night
Blown from the bleak Sierra's height?
Such reckless rider!-- I do ween
No mortal man his like has seen.
And yet, but for his long serape
All flowing loose, and black as crape,
And long silk locks of blackest hair
All streaming wildly in the breeze,
You might believe him in a chair,
Or chatting at some country fair
He rides so grandly at his ease.

But now he grasps a tighter rein,
A red rein wrought in golden chain,
And in his tapidaros stands,
Turns, shouts defiance at his foe.
And now he calmly bares his brow
As if to challenge fate, and now
His hand drops to his saddle-bow
And clutches something gleaming there
As if to something more than dare.

The stray winds lift the raven curls,
Soft as a fair Castilian girl's,
And bare a brow so manly, high,
Its every feature does belie
The thought he is compell'd to fly;
A brow as open as the sky
On which you gaze and gaze again
As on a picture you have seen
And often sought to see in vain;
A brow of blended pride and pain,
That seems to hold a tale of woe
Or wonder, that you fain would know
A boy's brow, cut as with a knife,
With many a dubious deed in life.

Again he grasps his glittering rein,
And, wheeling like a hurricane,
Defying wood, or stone, or flood,
Is dashing down the gorge again.
Oh, never yet has prouder steed
Borne master nobler in his need !
There is a glory in his eye
That seems to dare and to defy
Pursuit, or time, or space, or race.
His body is the type of speed,
While from his nostril to his heel
Are muscles as if made of steel.

What crimes have made that red hand red?
What wrongs have written that young face
With lines of thought so out of place?
Where flies he? And from whence has fled?
And what his lineage and race?
What glitters in his heavy belt,
And from his furr'd cantenas gleam?
What on his bosom that doth seem
A diamond bright or dagger's hilt?
The iron hoofs that still resound
Like thunder from the yielding ground
Alone reply; and now the plain,
Quick as you breathe and gaze again,
Is won, and all pursuit is vain.

I stand upon a mountain rim,
Stone-paved and pattern'd as a street;
A rock-lipped cañon plunging south,
As if it were earth's open'd mouth
Yawns deep and darkling at mv feet;
So deep, so distant, and so dim
Its waters wind, a yellow thread,
And call so faintly and so far,
I turn aside my swooning head.
I feel a fierce impulse to leap
Adown the beetling precipice,
Like some lone, lost, uncertain star;
To plunge into a place unknown,
And win a world, all, all my own;
Or if I might not meet such bliss,
At least escape the curse of this.

I gaze again. A gleaming star
Shines back as from some mossy well
Reflected from blue fields afar.
Brown hawks are wheeling here and there,
And up and down the broken wall
Cling clumps of dark green chaparral,
While from the rent rocks, grey and bare;
Blue junipers hang in the air.

Here, cedars sweep the stream and here,
Among the boulders moss'd and brown
That time and storms have toppled down
From towers undefiled by man,
Low cabins nestle as in fear,
And look no taller than a span.
From low and shapeless chimneys rise
Some tall straight columns of blue smoke,
And weld them to the bluer skies;
While sounding down the somber gorge
I hear the steady pickax stroke,
As if upon a flashing forge.

Another scene, another sound --
Sharp shots are fretting through the air,
Red knives are flashing everywhere,
And here and there the yellow flood
Is purpled with warm smoking blood.
The brown hawk swoops low to the ground,
And nimble chipmunks, small and still,
Dart striped lines across the sill
That manly feet shall press no more.
The flume lies warping in the sun,
The pan sits empty by the door,
The pickax on its bedrock floor
Lies rusting in the silent mine.
There comes no single sound nor sign
Of life, beside yon monks in brown
That dart their dim shapes up and down
The rocks that swelter in the sun;
But dashing down yon rocky spur,
Where scarce a hawk would dare to whirr,
A horseman holds his reckless flight.
He wears a flowing black capote,
While over all do flow and float
Long locks of hair as dark as night,
And hands are red that erst were white.

All up and down the land today
Black desolation and despair
It seems have set and settled there,
With none to frighten them away.
Like sentries watching by the way
Black chimneys topple in the air,
And seem to say Go back, beware !
While up around the mountain's rim
Are clouds of smoke, so still and grim
They look as they are fasten'd there.

A lonely stillness, so like death,
So touches, terrifies all things,
That even rooks that fly o'erhead
Are hush'd, and seem to hold their breath,
To fly with sullen, muffled wings,
And heavy as if made of lead.
Some skulls that crumble to the touch,
Some joints of thin and chalk-like bone,
A tall black chimney, all alone,
That leans as if upon a crutch,
Alone are left to mark or tell,
Instead of cross or cryptic stone,
Where Joaquin stood and brave men fell.

The sun is red and flush'd and dry,
And fretted from his weary beat
Across the hot and desert sky,
And swollen as from overheat,
And failing too; for see, he sinks
Swift as a ball of burnish'd ore:
It may be fancy, but methinks
He never fell so fast before.

I hear the neighing of hot steeds,
I see the marshaling of men
That silent move among the trees
As busily as swarming bees
With step and stealthiness profound,
On carpetings of spindled weeds,
Without a syllable or sound
Save clashing of their burnish'd arms,
Clinking dull, deathlike alarms--
Grim bearded men and brawny men
That grope among the ghostly trees.
Were ever silent men as these?
Was ever somber forest deep
And dark as this? Here one might sleep
While all the weary years went round,
Nor wake nor weep for sun or sound.

A stone's throw to the right, a rock
Has rear'd his head among the stars--
An island in the upper deep--
And on his front a thousand scars
Of thunder's crash and earthquake's shock
Are seam'd as if by sabre's sweep
Of gods, enraged that he should rear
His front amid their realms of air.

What moves along his beetling brow,
So small, so indistinct and far,
This side yon blazing evening star,
Seen through that redwood's shifting bough ?
A lookout on the world below ?
A watcher for the friend--or foe?
This still troop's sentry it must be,
Yet seems no taller than my knee.

But for the grandeur of this gloom,
And for the chafing steeds' alarms,
And brown men's sullen clash of arms,
This were but as a living tomb.
These weeds are spindled, pale and white,
As if nor sunshine, life, nor light
Had ever reach'd this forest's heart.
Above, the redwood boughs entwine
As dense as copse of tangled vine--
Above, so fearfully afar,
It seems as 'twere a lesser sky,
A sky without a moon or star,
The moss'd boughs are so thick and high.
At every lisp of leaf I start !
Would I could hear a cricket trill,
Or hear yon sentry from his hill,
The place does seem so deathly still.
But see a sudden lifted hand
From one who still and sullen stands,
With black serape and bloody hands,
And coldly gives his brief command.

They mount--away! Quick on his heel
He turns and grasps his gleaming steel--
Then sadly smiles, and stoops to kiss
An upturn'd face so sweetly fair,
So sadly, saintly, purely rare,
So rich in blessedness and bliss !
I know she is not flesh and blood,
But some sweet spirit of this wood;
I know it by her wealth of hair,
And step on the unyielding air;
Her seamless robe of shining white,
Her soul-deep eyes of darkest night;
But over all and more than all
That can be said or can befall,
That tongue can tell or pen can trace,
That wondrous witchery of face.

Between the trees I see him stride
To where a red steed fretting stands
Impatient for his lord's commands;
And she glides noiseless at his side.

One hand toys with her waving hair,
Soft lifting from her shoulders bare;
The other holds the loosen'd rein,
And rests upon the swelling mane
That curls the curved neck o'er and o'er,
Like waves that swirl along the shore.
He hears the last retreating sound
Of iron on volcanic stone,
That echoes far from peak to plain,
And death the dense wood's sable zone,
He peers the dark Sierras down.

His hand forsakes her raven hair,
His eyes have an unearthly glare;
She shrinks and shudders at his side
Then lifts to his her moisten'd eyes,
And only looks her sad replies.
A sullenness his soul enthralls,
A silence born of hate and pride;
His fierce volcanic heart so deep
Is stirr'd, his teeth, despite his will,
Do chatter as if in a chill;
His very dagger at his side
Does shake and rattle in its sheath,
As blades of brown grass in a gale
Do rustle on the frosted heath:
And yet he does not bend or weep,
But sudden mounts, then leans him o'er
To breathe her hot breath but once more.
I do not mark the prison'd sighs,
I do not meet the moisten'd eyes,
The while he leans him from his place
Down to her sweet uplifted face.

A low sweet melody is heard
Like cooing of some Balize bird,
So fine it does not touch the air,
So faint it stirs not anywhere;
Faint as the falling of the dew,
Low as a pure unutter'd prayer,
The meeting, mingling, as it were,
In that one long, last, silent kiss
Of souls in paradisal bliss.

"You must not, shall not, shall not go!
To die and leave me here to die !
Enough of vengeance, Love and I?
I die for home and--Mexico."

He leans, he plucks her to his breast,
As plucking Mariposa's flower,
And now she crouches in her rest
As resting in some rosy bower.

Erect, again he grasps the rein !
I see his black steed plunge and poise
And beat the air with iron feet,
And curve his noble glossy neck,
And toss on high his swelling mane,
And leap--away ! he spurns the rein!
He flies so fearfully and fleet,
But for the hot hoofs' ringing noise
'Twould seem as if he were on wings.

And they are gone! Gone like a breath,
Gone like a white sail seen at night
A moment, and then lost to sight;
Gone like a star you look upon,
That glimmers to a bead, a speck
Then softly melts into the dawn,
And all is still and dark as death,
And who shall sing, for who may know
That mad, glad ride to Mexico?

Notation by the poet:

The third poem in my first London book was called "California," but it was called "Joaquin" in the Oregon book. And it was from this that I was, in derision, called "Joaquin." I kept the name and the poem, too, till both were at least respected. But my elder brother, who had better judgment and finer taste than I, thought it too wild and bloody; and so by degrees it has been allowed to disappear, except this fragment, although a small book of itself, to begin with.

Notation from The Journal:

Joaquin Murietta was a famous early Californian. His band of outlaws tormented the miners of the mid nineteenth century. He enjoyed broad popularity among the Spanish speaking population. Murietta's legend in California is often equated with the legend of Robin Hood.

The commonly accepted account of his death is linked to Captain Harry Love of the California Rangers, who reportedly killed Murietta and sent his head to the Governor of California, along with the hand of Murietta's lieutenant, who was known to the miners as Three Fingered Jack. Captain Love was rewarded with a bounty by the Governor. With his reward Love retired from the California Rangers, and built a saw mill on Love Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He also built a home home near the junction of Love Creek and the San Lorenzo River. Love was later killed in a gun fight in San Jose.

Another version of history reports that Murietta fled to Mexico after it was reported that he had been killed by Captain Love. According to this version of history, Love hunted down and killed the wrong outlaw. Murietta died in Mexico of old age, on a farm that he owned. This version was embraced by Joaquin Miller who adopted Murietta's first name, and with it, a piece of the legend of Joaquin.

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In San Francisco

Lo! here we sit mid the sun-down seas
And the white Sierras. The swift sweet, breeze
Is about us here; and the sky so fair
Is bending above its azaline hue,
That you gaze and you gaze in delight, and you
See God and the portals of heaven there.

Yea, here sit we where the white ships ride
In the morn made glad and forgetful of night,
The white and the brown men side by side
In search of the trruth, and betrothed to the right;
For these are the idols, and only these,
Of men that abide by the sun-down seas.

The brown brave hamd of the harvester,
The delicate hand of the prince untried,
The rough hard hand of the carpenter,
They are all upheld with an equal pride;
And the prize it is his to be crown'd or blest,
Prince or peon, who bears him best.

Yea, here sit we by the golden gate,
Not demanding much, but inviting you all,
Nor publishing loud, but daring to wait,
And great in much that the days deem small;
And the gate it is God's, to Cathay, Japan,--
And who shall shut it in the face of man?

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Twilight At The Hights

The brave young city by the Balboa seas
Lies compassed about by the hosts of night--
Lies humming, low like a hive of bees;
And the day lies dead. And its spirit's flight
Is far to the west; while the golden bars
That bound it are broken to a dust of stars.

Come under my oaks, oh drowsy dusk!
The wolf and the dog; dear incense hour
When Mother Earth hath a smell of musk,
And things of the spirit assert their power--
When candles are set to burn in the west--
Set head and foot to the day at rest.

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