The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Edwin Markham, who has been called “the dean of American poets,” received national fame, and later worldwide fame, when he published “The Man with the Hoe.” It changed his career immediately. The poem consists of forty-nine lines divided into five stanzas of social commentary that focus on America’s working class and their sufferings. It is a striking poem of protest against exploited labor.

After viewing French artist Jean-François Millet’s world-famous painting of a peasant leaning on his hoe, The Man with the Hoe (1862), Markham was inspired to write his poem in 1898. He is reported to have seen the original painting, which had a profound effect on him, in San Francisco. Markham was at a New Year’s Eve celebration when he read the poem to an editor of the San Francisco Examiner. Shortly thereafter, the poem was published in that paper.

Because of its popularity, the poem was translated into many languages and reprinted in magazines, newspapers, and books numerous times. The poem’s success allowed Markham to spend more time writing and lecturing. In regard to the reform movements concerning labor struggles of the time, the poem generated much controversy. The newspapers received many letters regarding “The Man with the Hoe.” The poem was open to different interpretations. Some readers said that the poem was advocating socialism: Some were in support of the concept; others were against it. Others said the poem contained a prophetic message that could incite unessential reforms. Still others considered the poem a medium for expressing farmers’ and workers’ grievances.

For Markham, Millet’s peasant symbolized the exploited classes worldwide. Markham said that he viewed it as “a poem of hope. a cry for justice.” In the fourth stanza, Markham addresses the “masters, lords, and rulers in all lands.” He interrogates them with an implied sense of optimism:

Is this the handiwork you give to God,This monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched?How will you ever straighten up this shape,Touch it again with immortality;Give back the upward looking and the light;Rebuild in it the music and the dream;Make right the immemorial infamies,Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes?

The Man with the Hoe Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Selecting the best way to express his poetic ideas about social and spiritual beliefs, Markham chose blank verse, for it provided the flexibility he needed. As Markham employed language, he made use of several poetic devices, including vivid descriptions, extended metaphors, rhetorical questions, literary allusions, and symbolism.

In the first stanza, the reader is given a vivid description of a laborer who has been crushed by years of toil, struggles, and injustices, to the extent that one can visualize the negative effects: “Bowed by the weight of centuries,” “The emptiness of ages in his face,” “on his back the burden of the world.” Markham asks, “Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?” Some other poets have also shown interest in the treatment of humankind. Among them is eighteenth century Robert Burns, who also was a farmer and a poet. In his poem “Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” he writes of the many ills that have befallen humankind: “Man’s inhumanity to man,/ Makes countless thousands mourn.”

The second stanza of “The Man with the Hoe” opens with an allusion to the Genesis creation story; Markham refers to humanity as the “Thing the Lord God made and gave/ To have dominion over sea and land.” Markham suggests that humans have lost their position and are no longer held in high esteem, as God intended. Human dignity has been taken away. The “Thing” is the antithesis of the man whom David describes in Psalm 8:4-5: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?/ Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor./ Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands. . . .”

Markham continues to focus on some of the negative effects of the “Slaves of the wheel of labor.” He clearly condemns the exploitation of labor. Such conditions have caused the laborer to have an “aching stoop” and to become devoid of mind and heart. Markham also challenges “the Judges of the World.” In the last stanza, he alludes to changes in the future that may come about as a result of protests and rebellions. Consequently, Markham wants to know how the world will react “When this dumb Terror shall reply to God,/ After the silence of the centuries?”