The Roots of Progress

Progress poetry

A collection of poems and lyrics that express the spirit of progress.

The Botanic Garden, 1791

A book-length poem by Erasmus Darwin. Part 1, “The Economy of Vegetation,” according to Wikipedia, “celebrates scientific progress and technological innovation, such as the forging of steel, the invention of the steam engine and the improvements to gunpowder. It depicts scientists and inventors, such as Benjamin Franklin, responsible for this progress as the heroes of a new age.”

Here’s a brief excerpt in which Darwin sings the praises of steam; in the last stanza he predicts the steamboat, the locomotive, and the airship:

Nymphs! you erewhile on simmering cauldrons play’d,
And call’d delighted Savery to your aid;
Bade round the youth explosive Steam aspire
In gathering clouds, and wing’d the wave with fire;
Bade with cold streams the quick expansion stop,
And sunk the immense of vapour to a drop.
Press’d by the ponderous air the Piston falls
Resistless, sliding through its iron walls;
Quick moves the balanced beam of giant-birth,
Wields his large limbs, and, nodding, shakes the earth.

The Giant-Power from earth’s remotest caves
Lifts with strong arm her dark reluctant waves;
Each cavern’d rock, and hidden den explores,
Drags her dark coals, and digs her shining ores.
Next, in close cells of ribbed oak confin’d,
Gale after gale, He crowds the struggling wind;
The imprison’d storms through brazen nostrils roar,
Fan the white flame, and fuse the sparkling ore.
Here high in air the rising stream He pours
To clay-built cisterns, or to lead-lined towers;
Fresh through a thousand pipes the wave distils,
And thirsty cities drink the exuberant rills.
There the vast mill-stone, with inebriate whirl,
On trembling floors his forceful fingers twirl.
Whose flinty teeth the golden harvests grind,
Feast without blood! and nourish human-kind.

Now his hard hands on Mona’s rifted crest,
Bosom’d in rock, her azure ores arrest;
With iron lips his rapid rollers seize
The lengthening bars, in thin expansion squeeze;
Descending screws with ponderous fly-wheels wound
The tawny plates, the new medallions round;
Hard dyes of steel the cupreous circles cramp,
And with quick fall his massy hammers stamp.
The Harp, the Lily and the Lion join,
And GEORGE and BRITAIN guard the sterling coin.

Soon shall thy arm, Unconquer’d Steam! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying-chariot through the fields of air.
—Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move;
Or warrior-bands alarm the gaping croud,
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud.

Source: The Botanic Garden

The Engine-Driver to His Engine, 1862

By William J. M. Rankine

Put forth your force my iron horse, with limbs that never tire!
The best of oil shall feed your joints, and the best of coal your fire,
So off we tear from Euston Square, to beat the swift south wind,
As we rattle along the North West Rail, with the express train behind.

    Dash along, crash along, sixty miles an hour!
        Right through old England flee!
    For I am bound to see my love,
        Far away in the North Countrie.

Like a train of ghosts the telegraph posts go wildly trooping by,
While one by one the milestones run and off behind us fly.
Like foaming wine it fires my blood to see your lightning speed,
Arabia’s race ne’er matched your pace my gallant steam-borne steed.

    Wheel along, squeal along, sixty miles an hour!
        Right through old England flee!
    For I am bound to see my love
        Far away in the North Countrie.

My blessing on old George Stephenson! Let his fame for ever last,
For he was the man that found the plan to make you run so fast.
His arm was strong, his head was long, he knew not guile nor fear;
When I think of him it makes me proud that I am an engineer!

    Tear along, flare along, sixty miles an hour!
        Right through old England flee!
    For I am bound to see my love
        Far away in the North Countrie.

Now Thames and Kent are far behind and evening’s shades are come,
Before my eyes the brown hills rise that guard my true love’s home.
Even now she stands, my own dear lass, beside the cottage door,
And she listens for the whistle shrill and the blast pipes rattling roar.

    Roll along, bowl along, sixty miles an hour!
        Right through old England flee!
    For I am bound to see my love
        Far away in the North Countrie.

Source: Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine

The Victory, 1872

About Samuel Morse, telegraph inventor. It was written for his memorial ceremony and read there by Rossiter Johnson; it’s unclear to me if Johnson is also the author.

When Man, in his Maker’s image, came
    To be the lord of the new-made earth,
To conquer its forests, its beasts to tame,
    To gather its metals and know their worth—
All readily granted his power and place,
Save the Ocean, the Mountain, and Time and Space;
And these four sneered at his puny frame,
    And made of his lordship a theme for mirth.

Whole ages passed while his flocks he tended,
    And delved and dreamed, as the years went by;
‘Till there came an age when his genius splendid
    Had bridged the rivers, and sailed the sky,
And raised the dome that defied the storm,
And mastered the beauties of color and form;
But his power was lost, his dominion ended,
    Where Time, Space, Mountain, or Sea was nigh.

The mountains rose in their grim inertness
    Between the nations, and made them strange,
Save as in moments of pride or pertness
    They climbed the ridge of their native range,
And, looking down on the tribe below,
Saw nothing there but a deadly foe;
Heard only a war-cry, long and shrill,
    In echoes leaping from hill to hill.

The Ocean rolled in its mighty splendor,
    Washing the slowly-wasting shore,
And the voices of nations, fierce or tender,
    Lost themselves in its endless roar.
With frail ships launched on its treacherous surge,
And sad eyes fixed on its far blue verge,
Man’s hold of life seemed brittle and slender,
    And the Sea his master for evermore.

And Space and Time brought their huge dimensions
    To separate man from his brother man,
And sowed between them a thousand dissensions,
    That ripened in hatred and caste and clan.
So Sea and Mountain and Time and Space
Laughed again in his lordship’s face,
And bade him blush for his weak inventions,
    And the narrow round his achievements ran.

But one morning he made him a slender wire,
    As an artist’s vision took life and form,
While he drew from heaven the strange, fierce fire,
    That reddens the edge of the midnight storm;
And he carried it over the Mountain’s crest,
And dropped it into the Ocean’s breast;
And Science proclaimed, from shore to shore,
That Time and Space ruled man no more.

Then the brotherhood lost on Shinar’s plain
Came back to the peoples of earth again.
“Be one!” sighed the Mountain, and shrunk away.
“Be one!” murmured Ocean, in dashes of spray.
“Be one!” said Space, “I forbid no more.”
“Be one!” echoed Time, “till my years are o’er.”
“We are one!” said the Nations, and hand met hand
In a thrill electric from land to land.

Source: Memorial of Samuel Finley Breese Morse

McAndrew’s Hymn, 1894

By Rudyard Kipling. McAndrew is the Scottish engineer of a steam ship, and this poem is written in the first person, in Scottish brogue. I’ve excerpted a brief portion that speaks of the beauty and glory of the engines:

That minds me of our Viscount loon—Sir Kenneth’s kin—the chap
Wi’ russia leather tennis-shoon an’ spar-decked yachtin’-cap.
I showed him round last week, o’er all—an’ at the last says he:
“Mister McAndrew, don’t you think steam spoils romance at sea?”
Damned ijjit! I’d been doon that morn to see what ailed the throws,
Manholin’, on my back—the cranks three inches off my nose.
Romance! Those first-class passengers they like it very well,
Printed an’ bound in little books; but why don’t poets tell?
I’m sick of all their quirks an’ turns—the loves an’ doves they dream—
Lord, send a man like Robbie Burns to sing the Song o’ Steam!
To match wi’ Scotia’s noblest speech yon orchestra sublime
Whaurto—uplifted like the Just—the tail-rods mark the time.
The Crank-throws give the double-bass; the feed-pump sobs an’ heaves:
An’ now the main eccentrics start their quarrel on the sheaves.
Her time, her own appointed time, the rocking link-head bides,
Till—hear that note?—the rod’s return whings glimmerin’ through the guides.
They’re all awa! True beat, full power, the clangin’ chorus goes
Clear to the tunnel where they sit, my purrin’ dynamoes.
Interdependence absolute, foreseen, ordained, decreed,
To work, Ye’ll note, at any tilt an’ every rate o’ speed.
Fra skylight-lift to furnace-bars, backed, bolted, braced an’ stayed,
An’ singin’ like the Mornin’ Stars for joy that they are made;
While, out o’ touch o’ vanity, the sweatin’ thrust-block says:
“Not unto us the praise, or man—not unto us the praise!”
Now, a’ together, hear them lift their lesson—theirs an’ mine:
“Law, Order, Duty an’ Restraint, Obedience, Discipline!”
Mill, forge an’ try-pit taught them that when roarin’ they arose,
An’ whiles I wonder if a soul was gied them wi’ the blows.
Oh for a man to weld it then, in one trip-hammer strain,
Till even first-class passengers could tell the meanin’ plain!

Source: The Kipling Society

Song of the Artesian Water, 1894

By Banjo Paterson.

Now the stock have started dying, for the Lord has sent a drought,
But we’re sick of prayers and Providence—we’re going to do without,
With the derricks up above us and the solid earth below,
We are waiting at the lever for the word to let her go.
    Sinking down, deeper down,
    Oh, we’ll sink it deeper down:
As the drill is plugging downward at a thousand feet of level,
If the Lord won’t send us water, oh, we’ll get it from the devil;
Yes, we’ll get it from the devil deeper down.

Now, our engine’s built in Glasgow by a very canny Scot,
And he marked it twenty horse-power, but he didn’t know what is what.
When Canadian Bill is firing with the sun-dried gidgee logs,
She can equal thirty horses and a score or so of dogs.
    Sinking down, deeper down
    Oh, we’re going deeper down:
If we fail to get the water, then it’s ruin to the squatter,
For the drought is on the station and the weather’s growing hotter,
But we’re bound to get the water deeper down.

But the shaft has started caving and the sinking’s very slow,
And the yellow rods are bending in the water down below,
And the tubes are always jamming, and they can’t be made to shift
Till we nearly burst the engine with a forty horse-power lift,
    Sinking down, deeper down,
    Oh, we’re going deeper down:
Though the shaft is always caving, and the tubes are always jamming,
Yet we’ll fight our way to water while the stubborn drill is ramming—
While the stubborn drill is ramming deeper down.

But there’s no artesian water, though we’re passed three thousand feet,
And the contract price is growing, and the boss is nearly beat.
But it must be down beneath us, and it’s down we’ve got to go.
Though she’s bumping on the solid rock four thousand feet below,
    Sinking down, deeper down,
    Oh, we’re going deeper down:
And it’s time they heard us knocking on the roof of Satan’s dwellin’,
But we’ll get artesian water if we cave the roof of hell in—
Oh we’ll get artesian water deeper down.

But it’s hark! the whistle’s blowing with a wild, exultant blast,
And the boys are madly cheering, for they’ve struck the flow at last:
And it’s rushing up the tubing from four thousand feet below,
Till it spouts above the casing in a million-gallon flow.
    And it’s down, deeper down—
    Oh, it comes from deeper down:
It is flowing, ever flowing, in a free, unstinted measure
From the silent hidden places where the old earth hides her treasure—
Where the old earth hides her treasures deeper down.

And it’s clear away the timber and it’s let the water run,
How it glimmers in the shadow, how it flashes in the sun!
By the silent belts of timber, by the miles of blazing plain
It is bringing hope and comfort to the thirsty land again.
    Flowing down, further down:
    It is flowing further down
To the tortured thirsty cattle, bringing gladness in its going;
Through the droughty days of summer it is flowing, ever flowing—
It is flowing, ever flowing, further down.

Source: The Works of Banjo Paterson

At Your Service, 1913

By Berton Braley.

Here we are, gentlemen; here’s the whole gang of us,
    Pretty near through with the job we are on;
Size up our work—it will give you the hang of us—
    South to Balboa and north to Colon.
Yes, the canal is our letter of reference;
    Look at Culebra and glance to Gatun;
What can we do for you—got any preference,
    Wireless to Saturn or bridge to the moon?

Don’t send us back to a life that is flat again,
    We who have shattered a continent’s spine;
Office work—Lord, but we couldn’t do that again!
    Haven’t you something that’s more in our line?
Got any river they say isn’t crossable?
    Got any mountains that can’t be cut through?
We specialize in the wholly impossible,
    Doing things “nobody ever could do!”

Take a good look at the whole husky crew of us,
    Engineers, doctors and steam-shovel men;
Taken together you’ll find quite a few of us
    Soon to be ready for trouble again.
Bronzed by the tropical sun that is blistery,
    Chockful of energy, vigor and tang,
Trained by a task that’s the biggest in history,
    Who has a job for this Panama gang?

Source: Colliers

Grand Coulee Dam, 1941

A song by Woody Guthrie.

Well, the world has seven wonders that the trav’lers always tell,
Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well,
But now the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam’s fair land,
It’s the big Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee Dam.

She heads up the Canadian Rockies where the rippling waters glide,
Comes a-roaring down the canyon to meet the salty tide,
Of the wide Pacific Ocean where the sun sets in the West
And the big Grand Coulee country in the land I love the best.

In the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray,
Men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave,
Well, she tore their boats to splinters but she gave men dreams to dream
Of the day the Coulee Dam would cross that wild and wasted stream.

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ‘thrity-three,
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me,
He said, “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”

Now in Washington and Oregon you can hear the factories hum,
Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum,
And there roars the flying fortress now to fight for Uncle Sam,
Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam.

Source: Woody Guthrie