Harriet Monroe, the founder and longtime editor of Poetry magazine, was the author of a large body of poems that captured the essence of urban industrial modernity. Her 1914 book, You and I ( Macmillan Company, New York), contains two poems about power generation.
The first, “The Turbine,” is an engineer’s ode to his turbine. The second, “A Power-Plant,” references Edison’s Fisk Street power plant in Chicago—the plant that housed GE’s first (5-MW) steam turbine generator unit. The 1903-opened plant was permanently closed in 2012.
Look at her—there she sits upon her throne
As ladylike and quiet as a nun!
But if you cross her—whew! her thunderbolts
Will shake the earth ! She’s proud as any
The beauty—knows her royal business too,
To light the world, and does it night by night
When her gay lord, the sun, gives up his job.
I am her slave; I wake and watch and run
From dark till dawn beside her. All the while
She hums there softly, purring with delight
Because men bring the riches of the earth
To feed her hungry fires. I do her will
And dare not disobey, for her right hand
Is power, her left is terror, and her anger
Is havoc. Look—if I but lay a wire
Across the terminals of yonder switch
She’ll burst her windings, rip her casings off,
And shriek till envious Hell shoots up its flames,
Shattering her very throne. And all her people,
The laboring, trampling, dreaming crowds out
Fools and the wise who look to her for light —
Will walk in darkness through the liquid night,
Sometimes I wonder why she stoops
To be my friend—oh yes, who talks to me
And sings away my loneliness; my friend,
Though I am trivial and she sublime.
Hard-hearted?—No, tender and pitiful,
As all the great are. Every arrogant grief
She comforts quietly, and all my joys
Dance to her measures through the tolerant
She talks to me, tells me her troubles too,
Just as I tell her mine. Perhaps she feels
An ache deep down—that agonizing stab
Of grit grating her bearings; then her voice
Changes its tune, it wails and calls to me
To soothe her anguish, and I run, her slave,
Probe like a surgeon and relieve the pain.
We have our jokes too, little mockeries
That no one else in all the swarming world
Would see the point of. She will laugh at me
To show her power: maybe her carbon packings
Leak steam, and I run madly back and forth
To keep the infernal fiends from breaking
Suddenly she will throttle them herself
And chuckle softly, far above me there,
At my alarms.
But there are moments—hush!—
When my turn comes; her slave can be her
Conquering her he serves. For she’s a woman,
Gets bored there on her throne, tired of her-
Tingles with power that turns to wantonness.
Suddenly something’s wrong—she laughs at me.
Bedevils the frail wires with some mad caress
That thrills blind space, calls down ten thousand
To ruin her pomp and set her spirit free.
Then with this puny hand, swift as her threat,
Must I beat back the chaos, hold in leash
Destructive furies, rescue her—even her—
From the fierce rashness of her truant mood.
And make me lord of far and near a moment,
Startling the mystery. Last night I did it—
Alone here with my hand upon her heart
I faced the mounting fiends and whipped them
And never a wink from the long file of lamps
Betrayed her to the world.
So there she sits.
Mounted on all the ages, at the peak
Of time. The first man dreamed of light, and
The sodden ignorance away, and cursed
The darkness; young primeval races dragged
Foundation stones, and piled into the void
Rage and desire; the Greek mounted and sang
Promethean songs and lit a signal fire;
The Roman bent his iron will to forge
Deep furnaces; slow epochs riveted
With hope the secret chambers: till at last
We, you and I, this living age of ours,
A new-winged Mercury, out of the skies
Filch the wild spirit of light, and chain him
To do her will forever.
Look, my friend,
Behold a sign! What is this crystal sphere—
This little bulb of glass I lightly lift.
This iridescent bubble a child might blow
Out of its brazen pipe to hold the sun —
What strange toy is it? In my hand it lies
Cold and inert, its puny artery—
That curling cobweb film—ashen and dead.
But see—a twist or two—let it but touch
The hem, far trailing, of my lady’s robe.
And lo, the burning life-blood of the stars
Leaps to its heart, that glows against the dark,
Kindling the world.
Even so I touch her garment.
Her servant through the quiet night; and thus
I lay my hand upon the Pleiades
And feel their throb of fire. Grandly she gives
To me unworthy; woman inscrutable,
Scatters her splendors through my darkness,
Far out into the workshop of the worlds.
There I can feel those infinite energies
Our little earth just gnaws at through the ether.
And see the light our sunshine hides. Out there
Close to the heart of life I am at peace.
—Harriet Monroe, You and I. The Macmillan Company,New York, 1914. Print
The Fisk Street turbine power station in
The invisible wheels go softly round and
Light is the tread of brazen-footed Power.
Spirits of air, caged in the iron tower,
Sing as they labor with a purring sound.
The abysmal fires, grated and chained and
Burn white and still, in swift obedience cower;
While far and wide the myriad lamps, aflower.
Glow like star-gardens and the night confound.
This we have done for thee, almighty Lord;
Yea, even as they who built at thy command
The pillared temple, or in marble made
Thine image, or who sang thy deathless word.
We take the weapons of thy dread right hand,
And wield them in thy service unafraid.
—Monroe, Harriet. You and I. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1914. Print