By: Randolph Bourne
May 25, 2022

A (pro- or anti-) science-, mathematics-, technology-, space-, apocalypse-, dehumanization-, disenchantment-, and/or future-oriented poem published during sf’s emergent Radium Age (c. 1900–1935). Research and selection by Joshua Glenn.

Umberto Boccioni, “Figure” (1912)

In “Sabotage,” a 1912 poem in blank verse, Randolph Bourne gives us the lyrics to the first-ever heavy metal power ballad.



Into your machines, O my masters, you
      have knotted and kneaded our lives.
You have caught our early dawn and
      streaked it over with murky clouds of
You have staled the freshness of our
      morning, and dried the dew of our
      limpid misty youth with the inexorable
      blatant roaring mechanics of your
You have taken our flesh and our heart’s
      blood, and with the cunning artifice of
      the sculptor have plastered and daubed
      us into your metal looms.
Our ambitions, our desires, our loves and
      gloomy fears, you have drawn out one
      by one into fine-spun threads, and tied
      our souls to your clashing wheels and
      whirling spindles,
And little pieces of our lives stick quivering
      to all their joints and frames—
Lost dead strains of our effort, lost and
      dead to us but still quick and alive in the
      subtlety of our adaptation,
Quick and alive in the skill of our muscles
      which rivets us even more tightly to the
      steel whose prisoners we are.
From the mystical touch of our labor, from
      the blood which we have poured so
      freely through their creaking metal
Your machines have received life, received
      thought, have created;
We have been to them as gods and have
      breathed life into their dull clay.
But base and drabbled gods—
For over us, O my masters, turns ever your
      iron wheel of the world, the wheel of
      ownership, the wheel of exploitation,
And we who breathed the soul of life are in
      our turn drained of our soul of life,
As the machines spring into creation, we
      living bodies deaden—deaden—deaden
Our muscles, tense, quick, sure, become
      the lifeless nerves, the deeply-
      channelled reflex
Through which the great thought and
      purpose of the machine expresses its
      conscious self.
We are the cogs, we are the levers, we are
      the machines, at which these metal
      monsters work.
We are their food, their body’s
We are one flesh with them — tangled,
      coiled, metabolized, inextricably
Into your machines, O my masters, you
      have knitted and kneaded our lives.


But see! now as the dim confused cry of
      revolt sounds far without the factory
As we strain to hear the wild sweet cruel
      words that bid us cease from labor —
Slowly ebbs back the blood into our veins,
      ebbs back from the vital triumphant
      lusty machines that have long
      dominated us.
We are men again, we strain to tear
      ourselves from the suffocating
We wrench ourselves from the fusion
      which has killed us.
From this blended body we strive to tear
      our bodies, from this tangled soul we
      strive to tear our souls.
And in the wrenchings what veins of the
      machine are opened! what sinews tear!
      what tender nerves are ripped asunder!
We wrestle and sweat to escape, and in the
      mad struggle what of the firmest tissues
      are broken! what of the strongest fibres
      are rent!
See! this bolt! it comes away with me — it is
      part of me —
I am ground into it, with the grindings of
      winter daybreaks and feverish August
See! this handle! it cleaves to me as I tear
      myself away — it is a part of me —
It is that have given it life — it loves me it
      pulls and tears after me, and what if in
      its pulling it tears and kills the
      vital bowels of the machine.
See! we workers and our machines, we are
      all of one wondrous fabric — one
      thread of us do you pull, and the whole
      great sheet unravels,
We cannot help, O my masters; it was not
      we that knit us into
      the warp and woof of your machines —
It was not we that drained off our power
      and our passion into the cold lifeless
      steel, and thrust the remorseless drive
      and clank into our own sinews and
It was not we that kneaded our lives into
      the brick and steel.
What if in our wrenchings old moralities
      crumble, and the “Thou Shalt Nots” of
      our masters become as fine powder?
It was not we that stood on Sinai, or
      wrought the iron lock of ownership.
Curse yourselves, O my masters, as we pull
      and strain, and the great domineering
      machines lie wounded and stricken at
      our feet.
Curse yourselves, but in us dawns the mad
      hope, the wild certainty of the day when
      we both shall live!
The day when new free sweet moralities
      shall arise, and in the healing touch of
      brotherhood, the machines — into
      which, O my masters, you have knotted
      and kneaded our lives — shall be, not
      flesh of our body, but docile nerves and
      sinews of our will!


RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF POETRY: H.D.’s STARS WHEEL IN PURPLE | Clark Ashton Smith’s FROM PLANET UNTO PLANET WHIRLED | Anonymous’s ASTRONOMIC JOSH | Rudyard Kipling’s THE SECRET OF THE MACHINES | Randolph Bourne’s SABOTAGE | Stephen Spender’s THE PYLONS | Ford Madox Ford’s GREY MATTER | W.E. Henley’s A SONG OF SPEED | H.L. Mencken’s A BALLAD OF LOOKING | George Sterling’s THE TESTIMONY OF THE SUNS | Vachel Lindsay’s THE SCIENTIFIC ASPIRATION | Thomas Hardy’s EPITAPH FOR G.K. CHESTERTON | Archibald MacLeish’s EINSTEIN | Thomas Thornely’s THE ATOM | more to come.


Poetry, Radium Age SF