Classic Cowboy Poetry


photo taken 1870-1880
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. LC-BH826- 758

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Joaquin Miller (1837-1913), born Cincinnatus Hiner Miller, was known as a character in his day, and time has not necessarily improved his reputation. But, he was an early western figure who influenced many of his time and those who came after.  While his life and his writings have been the subject of much criticism, he helped create some of the enduring Old West myths.

A Wikipedia article states, "Miller's exploits included a variety of occupations, including mining-camp cook (who came down with scurvy from only eating what he cooked), lawyer and a judge, newspaper writer, Pony Express rider, and horse thief. As a young man, he moved to northern California during the California Gold Rush years, and had a variety of adventures, including spending a year living in a Native American village, and being wounded in a battle with Native Americans. A number of his popular works, Life Amongst the Modocs, An Elk Hunt, and The Battle of Castle Crags, draw on these experiences. He was wounded in the cheek and neck with an arrow during this latter battle, recuperating at the Gold Rush-era mining town of Portuguese Flat."

When Miller couldn't find success in America, he went to Britain and became the popular "Poet of the Sierras."  Miller has been called a "poseur" and "a vulgar fraud" and worse, and Bret Harte refused to publish any of his poems in his Overland Express. Still, at one time his poem, "Columbus," was memorized by many students.  

In Twayne's United States Authors Series, author O.W. Frost writes about one short poem: 

"Joaquin's manner of leaving Squawtown supports the tradition of Owen Wister's Western hero, the Virginian.  Disenchanted by his old partner Volney Abbey, Joaquin circulated the following lampoonery:"

Ye poets will open wide your eyes
Excuse me for being gabby
For I write of the renown of a man in town
By the name of Volney Abbey

Wise Dr Gates thus speaks and prates
Though you know he is somewhat gabby
I been bereft of some flour I left
I believe by Volney Abbey.

Miller was not unaware of his deficiencies, and a few verses from 1856 illustrate his "outsider" feelings. (And Miller didn't seem to believe in wasting apostrophes):

Oh how I wish I a goin was at home
In the valley of the old Willamette
And never again Id wish to roam
Ile seal the assertion with damn it.

Ile not have to live on chile beans
Shortbeef and rusty bacon
Nor work in mud and more and rain
And be all the time a shaken

But have enough to eat or drink
And best of clothes to wear sir
Ile leave the beef to rot and stink
And Ile have no chile beans out there sir.

But when I am I to get back home
Im sure I cannot tell sir
I havent half the chance to get back there
That I have to go to hell sir.


Links and books


Joaquin Miller's California home, 1909 postcard
Joaquin Miller's California Home (1909 Postcard)




Kit Carson's Ride

Room! room to turn round in, to breathe and be free.
To grow to be giant, to sail as at sea
With the speed of the wind on a steed with his mane
To the wind, without pathway or route or a rein.
Room! room to be free where the white border'd sea
Blows a kiss to a brother as boundless as he;
Where the buffalo come like a cloud on the plain.
Pouring on like the tide of a storm-driven main,
And the lodge of the hunter to friend or to foe
Offers rest; and unquestion'd you come or you go

My plains of America! Seas of wild lands!
From a land in the seas in a raiment of foam.
That has reached to a stranger the welcome of home,
I turn to you, lean to you, lift you my hands.

Run? Run? See this flank, sir, and I do love him so!
But he's blind, badger blind. Whoa, Pache, boy, whoa.
No, you wouldn't believe it to look at his eyes.
But he's blind, badger blind, and it happen'd this wise:

"We lay in the grass and the sunburnt clover
That spread on the ground like a great brown cover
Northward and southward, and west and away
To the Brazos, where our lodges lay,
One broad and unbroken level of brown.
We were waiting the curtains of night to come down
To cover us trio and conceal our flight
With my brown bride, yon from an Indian town
That lay in the rear the full ride of a night.

"We lounged in the grass—her eyes were in mine,
And her hands on my knee, and her hair was as wine
In its wealth and its flood, pouring on and all over
Her bosom wine red, and press'd never by one.
Her touch was as warm as the tinge of the clover
Burnt brown as it reach'd to the kiss of the sun.
Her words they were low as the lute-throated dove.
And as laden with love as the heart when it beats
In its hot, eager answer to earliest love.
Or the bee hurried home by its burthen of sweets.
"We lay low in the grass on the broad plain levels,
Old Revels and I, and my stolen brown bride;
"Forty full miles if a foot to ride !
Forty full miles if a foot, and the devils
Of red Comanches are hot on the track
When once they strike it. Let the sun go down
Soon, very soon," muttered bearded old Revels
As he peer'd at the sun, lying low on his back.
Holding fast to his lasso. Then he jerk'd at his steed

And he sprang to his feet, and glanced swiftly around.
And then dropp'd, as if shot, with an ear to the ground;
Then again to his feet, and to me, to my bride.
While his eyes were like flame, his face like a shroud.
His form like a king, and his beard like a cloud,
And his voice loud and shrill, as both trumpet and reed,—
"Pull, pull in your lassoes, and bridle to steed,
And speed you if ever for life you would speed.
Aye, ride for your lives, for your lives you must ride!
For the plain is aflame, the prairie on fire.
And the feet of wild horses hard flying before
I heard like a sea breaking high on the shore,
While the buffalo come like a surge of the sea.
Driven far by the flame, driving fast on us three
As a hurricane comes, crushing palms in his ire."

"We drew in the lassoes, seized saddle and rein.
Threw them on, cinched them on, cinched them over again.
And again drew the girth; and spring we to horse.
With head to the Brazos, with a sound in the air
Like the surge of a sea, with a flash in the eye,
From that red wall of flame reaching up to the sky;
A red wall of flame and a black rolling sea
Rushing fast upon us, as the wind sweeping free
And afar from the desert blown hollow and hoarse.

"Not a word, not a wail from a lip was left fall.
We broke not a whisper, we breathed not a prayer,
There was work to be done, there was death in the air.
And the chance was as one to a thousand for all.
Twenty miles ! . . . thirty miles ! . . . a dim distant speck . . .
Then a long reaching line, and the Brazos in sight!
And I rose in my seat with a shout of delight.
I stood in my stirrup, and look'd to my right—
But Revels was gone ; I glanced by my shoulder
And saw his horse stagger; I saw his head drooping
Hard down on his breast, and his naked breast stooping
Low down to the mane, as so swifter and bolder
Ran reaching out for us the red-footed fire.

He rode neck to neck with a buffalo bull.
That made the earth shake where he came in his course.
The monarch of millions, with shaggy mane full
Of smoke and of dust, and it shook with desire
Of battle, with rage and with bellowings hoarse.
His keen, crooked horns, through the storm of his mane.
Like black lances lifted and lifted again;
And I looked but this once, for the fire licked through.
And Revels was gone, as we rode two and two.

"I look'd to my left then—and nose, neck, and shoulder
Sank slowly, sank surely, till back to my thighs,
And up through the black blowing veil of her hair
Did beam full in mine her two marvelous eyes,
With a longing and love yet a look of despair
And of pity for me, as she felt the smoke fold her.
And flames leaping far for her glorious hair.
Her sinking horse falter'd, plunged, fell and was gone
As I reach'd through the flame and I bore her still on.
On! into the Brazos, she, Pache and I—
Poor, burnt, blinded Pache. I love him . . .That's why.

Joaquin Miller, 1870?, final version published in Songs of the Sierras, 1909

Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson (1809–1868) was a  trapper, guide, Indian agent, soldier, and rancher. Find a biography here in the PBS feature, The West.

Miller was criticized for this poem in its earlier version (See the original poem and the revision in a 2008 article in True West magazine here and an 1871 letter criticizing it in the same issue, here). The author writes, in part:

It is rarely that the license allowed to poets has been more thoroughly abused than in the ill-written lines which are contained in the article that heads this notice. As a rule in poetry when fact is departed from, it has always been to exaggerate the virtues of a departed hero, but never to slander him by rendering his picture ridiculous, much less indecent, and as we recall the modest, earnest, refined simplicity of Carson, and compare it with the frenzied and licentious buffoon presented in the poem and picture referred to, we cannot but regret that the scalp of Joaquin had not been counted among the “coups” of that redoubted knight of the prairies and mountains.

Miller writes about the poem and refers to some of his critics in this passage from Songs of the Sierras that follows the poem:

And here a few confidential lines for close friends: With better fortunes when my first London book was out, I had taken rooms at Museum Street, a few doors from the greatest store-house of art and history on the globe, and I literally lived in the British Museum every day. But I had already overtaxed my strength, and my eyes were paining terribly. Never robust, I had always abhorred meat; and milk, from a child, had been my strongest drink. In the chill damp of London you must eat and drink. I was, without knowing it, starving and working myself to death. Always and wherever you are, when a hard bit of work is done, rest and refresh. Go to the fields, woods, to God and get strong. This is your duty as well as your right....

Browning was just back from Italy, sunburnt and ruddy...Two of the Archbishop's beautiful daughters had been riding in the park with the Earl of Aberdeen. "And did you gallop?" asked Browning of the younger beauty. "I galloped, Joyce galloped, we galloped all three."

Then we all laughed at the happy and hearty retort, and Browning, beating the time and clang of galloping horses' feet on the table with his fingers, repeated the exact measure in Latin from Virgil; and the Archbishop laughingly took it up, in Latin, where he left off. I then told Browning I had an order—it was my first—for a poem from the Oxford Magazine, and would like to borrow the measure and spirit of his "Good News" for a prairie fire on the plains, driving buffalo and all other life before it into a river. "Why not borrow from Virgil, as I did? He is as rich as one of your gold mines, while I am but a poor scribe." And this was my first of inner London....

Let me here note some things my new poets that you should not do; then some that you must. The random notes of this book will serve you better than all the letters I could ever write you. Spend no time or strength finding fault with a fellow scribe. I know but little of prize fighters or pirates of the high seas, but from what I am told they are far more courteous to one another than are American authors, except in sets and little circles.

If you feel a bitterness my young poet toward some one more favored at this time than yourself, pray God to send some good angel to lay you on your back as is told in the story of Islam's prophet, and take the black drop from your heart, for it will make you not only weak and worthless if it remain, but it will make you certainly miserable. If you cannot learn to see beauty and love beauty in the life and work of Nature, then, believe me, you were not born to the sweetness of song. If you must find faults find them in your own work. I have done this, and
it has kept me busy. Nor shall you to the extent of its newness, scorn a new character, mistake character for eccentricity. Our work, the calling of the poet, is the highest under the stars, so are his triumphs the rarest; and he who would despoil him would despoil the dead.

Nor shall you bewail the afflictions of your flesh. That is old, old; and has been done perfectly. The man who intrudes the weakness of his body is a bore. Let him, if he must, sing the weakness of his mind. But when "he putteth of his armor," then, and not till then, may he tell the pain and peril of his fight.

This poem, "Kit Carson," was not in any of my four first books, and so has not been rightly revised till now. It was too long for the tumultuous and swift action; and then the end was coarse and unworthy the brave spirit of Kit Carson. I have here cut and changed it much; as I cut and changed all the matter of my three preceding books in London when I cut and compressed all I had done worth preserving into the Songs of the Sierras.

Find the full text of Songs of the Sierras here and also here.

Mabel Major wrote a 1951 article from which most modern information is known about Frank Desprez, the author of "Lasca." A 1963 abstract in the South Central Bulletin describes another paper by Mabel Major, "From Ghent to Texas," which she wrote for the South Central Modern Language Association meeting in November, 1962:

Robert Browning's "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix" (1844?), Joaquin Miller's "Kit Carson's Ride" (1870?), and Frank Desprez's "Lasca" are strikingly similar in subject matter, spirit, and poetic form. Each poem is about a swift horseback ride. Each resulted from its author's longing for a gallop. Each poem consists of ten stanzas of basically anapestic tetrameters, riming in couplets. Miller asked Browning for permission to use the meter and spirit of his poem. Frank Desprez, back in London from Texas, must have known Miller's poem before writing "Lasca," the best known Texas poem.

Read Browning's poem here.

Find more about "Lasca" in our feature here.

Midnight Pencillings

I am sitting alone in the moonlight,
    In the moonlight soft and clear,
And a thousand thoughts steal o'er me,
    While penciling, sitting here;
And the cricket is chirping, a chirping
    And sings as I sit alone,
In the tall willow grass around me,
    In a low and plaintive tone.

But fancy goes flitting and flying,
    And I cannot keep it here,
Though the crickets are singing so plaintive,
    And the moon shines never so clear.
Away in the hazy future—
    Afar by the foaming sea
I am painting a cot in my fancy—
    A cottage, and "Minnie" and me.

Now fancy grows dim in the distance—
    So dim in the long since past,
That I scarce can take the fair picture
    Of the playmates I spotted with last.
But away in the western wildwood
    In the woodland wild and wier,
I relive in fancy my childhood
    And sigh that I'm sitting here.

Yet I know 'tis wrong to be sighing
    And seeking a future too fair,
Or to call up old hopes that are lying
    A wreck in the sea of despair;
I know that the present has pleasures
    That I ought to enjoy and embrace,
Lest I sigh for these days that are passing
    When the future has taken their place.

Yet, as I sit in the moonlit meadow,
    With no voice but nature's near,
Save the chirp and the chime of the cricket
    Falling plaintively on the ear,
I cannot control my fancy,
    My thoughts are so wayward and wild,
That I ever will dream of the future,
    Or wish I again were a child.

Joaquin Miller


Behind him lay the gray Azores,
Behind the Gates of Hercules;
Before him not the ghost of shores,
Before him only shoreless seas.
The good mate said: “Now must we pray,  
For lo! the very stars are gone.
Brave Admiral, speak, what shall I say?”
“Why, say, ‘Sail on! sail on! and on!’”

“My men grow mutinous day by day;
My men grow ghastly wan and weak.” 
The stout mate thought of home; a spray
Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.
“What shall I say, brave Admiral, say,
If we sight naught but seas at dawn?”
“Why, you shall say at break of day, 
‘Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!’”

They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow,
Until at last the blanched mate said:
“Why, now not even God would know
Should I and all my men fall dead. 
These very winds forget their way,
For God from these dread seas is gone.
Now speak, brave Admiral, speak and say”—
He said: “Sail on! sail on! and on!”

They sailed. They sailed. Then spake the mate:  
“This mad sea shows his teeth to-night.
He curls his lip, he lies in wait,
With lifted teeth, as if to bite!
Brave Admiral, say but one good word:
What shall we do when hope is gone?” 
The words leapt like a leaping sword:
“Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!”

Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,
And peered through darkness. Ah, that night
Of all dark nights! And then a speck—  
A light! A light! A light! A light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
Its grandest lesson: “On! sail on!”

Joaquin Miller, 1892

A site here quotes commentary from a 1912 California 6th Grade Reader:

(This stirring poem by Joaquin Miller, the California poet, is widely known and greatly admired. An English critic said recently, “In point of power, workmanship, and feeling, among all the poems written by Americans, we are inclined to give first place to ‘Columbus’ by Joaquin Miller.”)


Links and Books

  • a biographical article by Kathi Morrison-Taylor here in the Beltway Poetry Quarterly from 2008 includes biographical information and photographs.

  • is "Margaret Guilford-Kardell's Bibliography on the Life, Times, and Exploits of Cincinnatus Hiner Miller."

  • A Wikipedia entry includes biographical and bibliographic information and links.

  • The California Reader site is an impressive site that includes Miller's poetry, prose, and photos of Joaquin Miller and his family. The site also has articles about how others, including Lily Langtry, saw Miller, and it includes more links.


Though Miller wrote many books, only one remains in print:

Click to order from Amazon  Miller's Life Amongst The Modocs is "based on his years among the mining towns and Indian camps of northernmost California during the tumultuous 1850s." 

Other works include:

    Songs of the Sierras, 1871 (find the complete contents on the web here and also here.)
    Forty-nine, 1882
    In Classic Shades and Other Poems, 1890
    The Poetical Works of Joaquin Miller, 1923
    Overland in a Covered Wagon: An Autobiography, 1930
    Joaquin Miller: His California Diary, 1936
    Selected Writings of Joaquin Miller (and his drawings), 1977



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