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"The Man with the Hoe" is a poem of social protest. It describes a poor man who is digging with a hoe. The poet describes how this man has been working so hard and for so long that his emotions and hopes are dead:
Who made him dead to rapture and despair, A thing that grieves not and that never hopes, Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
The poet blames the man's plight on the "masters, lords and rulers in all lands" -- in other words on the powers of government, business, and society that have forced many people to live hopeless lives of back-breaking work.
The poet calls upon the powers that be to correct the situation:
Touch it again with immortality; Give back the upward looking and the light; Rebuild in it the music and the dream;
The poet also warns that if the situation of people like the man with the hoe is not improved, there will be "whirlwinds of rebellion."
The poem's structure is non-rhyming iambic pentameter. This means that the poem has:
- Ten syllables in each line
- Five pairs of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables
- A rhythm in each line that sounds like:
ba-BUM/ ba-BUM/ ba-BUM/ ba-BUM/ ba-BUM (http://shakespeare.about.com/od/shakespeareslanguage/a/i_pentameter.htm)
The poem uses a number of common poetic devices. These include:
a) Alliteration (the repetition of beginning consonant sounds):
"gazes on the ground"; " And on his back the burden."
b) Anaphora (the repetition of a word, phrase, or grammatical structure):
"Who made him dead to rapture and despair...Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?";
Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave To have dominion over sea and land; To trace the stars and search the heavens for power. To feel the passion of Eternity?
c) Anthropomorphism (the attribution of human qualities to non-human or inaminate objects or concepts):
"Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans / Upon his hoe..."
Centuries do not physically have weight, and so they cannot bow (or bend) someone. The poet is using an anthropomorphic figure of speech.
The poet, Edwin Markham, lived from 1852 to 1940. In 1852, a poem of this type would have been considered fairly modern in structure and theme. By 1940, both the structure and theme would have been considered old-fashioned. By that time, poetic structure had become much freer, and poetic themes had tended to drift away from the directly political and social toward much more personal and psychological themes.
The poem 'The Man with the Hoe' by Edwin Markham might fit in a few categories, but the one which seems the strongest and most obvious is 'Protest Poetry.' It helps to understand a little of the poem's (and the poet's) background. It is said to have been inspired by a painting - one with which you may be familiar - of an agricultural worker hoeing, by Millet. If not, try to see an image of it as it will surely add to your understanding of the mood and atmosphere of the poem. The peom's interpretation of the worker is that of an oppressed servant to a brutal master who overworks his staff. This is part of a general pattern of exploitation of the poor by the landed rich which Markham is shouting out about.
The picture that the poem is based on can be seen at the link provided below.
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