Can you give me a summary of "The Man with a Hoe"?

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kplhardison's profile pic

Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

The poet, Edwin Markham, describes the physical, intellectual and spiritual state of people, symbolized by the man in Millet's oil painting L'homme à la houe, who are forced into life-long arduous labor. He then predicts the upcoming doom of retribution and asks "Who" is responsible and how they will answer the "brute question" of "Why?" when it is asked by this "Man."

Markham describes the man with the hoe as being bent with centuries of "weight" that has made his face "empty," his jaw slack, his aspect like an "ox," his brain lightless, a cold ember. He says that God made humankind to have power and knowledge and to "feel the passion of Eternity," but this "man" is far from being the "dream" God dreamed in creation, a Biblical allusion to the Genesis creation account. This "man" has become the most fearful "shape" among the demons and the most powerful "shape" (terrible has double meanings, fearful and powerful). His cries against "blind greed" and will one day bring "danger to the universe."

In a Biblical allusion to Psalm 8:5, "a little lower than the angels," the poet says this "man" has been beaten so far down that the distance between him and the angels is now a great gulf: he has been so far removed from his original state that a gulf separates him from his true being: "You have made [humans] a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor" (Psalm 8:5). Unable to contemplate Plato, to follow the seasons through the cycle of the Pleiades star cluster, unable to understand musical composition, or to know the meaning of the dawn or cultivate a "reddening rose," this man with a hoe has been robbed of "rapture and despair," and, being thus deadened, he lives never grieving his lot, never hoping for better.

The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back, the burden of the world.
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 asks "WHO" has done these things to the "dream" God dreamed and identifies them in an apostrophe as "O master, lords and rulers in all lands." Earlier identified as those having "blind greed," he challenges those who have caused the terrible and dread condition afflicting the "shape" of "profaned" and "disinherited" humanity. He asks them if they want their legacy to be this "betrayed and plundered" "shape"--turned into a "monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched"--when the "shape" they've profaned is the "handiwork" God dreamed. The poet asks how they can touch the burdened, bent, soulless shape and imbue it again with the immortality of being human, with a living soul. He asks how they can rebuild the dream and make right the infamies, the wrongs and woes.

He finally asks how the "future" will justify what's been done to this powerful "Man": "How will the future reckon with this Man?" (reckon with: to answer to a powerful person). He asks how the "masters, lords and rulers" will answer the Man's "brute question," the brute question of "WHY?" when the prophesied "whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores" because this "Man," this silenced "Terror," has risen up, broken his silence, and come to "judge the world."

How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings--
With those who shaped him to the thing he is--
When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?

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linda-allen's profile pic

linda-allen | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

You'll find an excellent summary of the poem at the link pasted below.

Markham was inspired to write this poem by Jean-Francois Millet's painting L'homme a la houe (Man with a Hoe). I've included a link to the Getty Museum web page, where you can see that painting. If you'll read the poem while looking at the painting, you might get a better understanding of what Markham was trying to say.

In the first four stanzas, Markham describes the man and speculates what made him look so gaunt and despairing. In the final stanza, he leaves a warning for the mighty and powerful who oppress such people as this man:

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings--
With those who shaped him to the thing he is--
When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?

What will happen when this man (and all like him) finally erupts in anger and frustration and rebels?

 

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