The Man with the Hoe

by Edwin Markham

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How is "The Man with the Hoe" described by the poet?

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The famous poem "The Man With the Hoe" by Edwin Markham is based upon a painting of the same name. Because the poem is inspired by a still image, the physical description of the man matches what the painter, Jean-Francois Millet, depicted in oil. However, Markham goes far beyond Millet's painting to also describe the man's mental and spiritual condition. He also compares what he should be like (as a living soul created in the image of God) in relation to what he is really like.

Physically, Markham describes the man leaning on the hoe and looking at the ground with a dead, emotionless expression. His jaw hangs loose with exhaustion. He is like a beast of burden instead of a man due to the hard work he has to do. He has become distorted through his never-ending toil and is now described as a "dread shape," a "monstrous thing," and with "dumb terror."

Markham writes that the mental state of the man has also been affected by the excruciating burden of his work. He can no longer appreciate the beauties around him—such as the appearance of dawn, the color of flowers, the light of the stars, or the nuances of music. Markham explains that his soul is quenched; in other words, the light of it has been put out. He needs to once again look upward, see the light, enjoy music, and sense his immortality.

Spiritually, the poet describes the man with the hoe as fallen from the image that God created in the beginning and intended humankind to embody. Markham points out that God intended that man should have "dominion over sea and land" and "feel the passion of eternity." Instead, the "world's blind greed" has caused this poor man to become a "slave of the wheel of labor" who is far removed from God's original vision for him. Markham proclaims that the "masters, lords and rulers in all lands" are accountable for this man's pains and sorrows, both now and in the future.

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The narrator creates sympathy for the man by describing him as standing "bowed" as he leans on his hoe. The man also has an emptiness in his gaze and seems to carry a heavy burden on his back. The narrator then describes the man as being "stolid and stunned" and compares him to an ox. Again, the man's back is described as being "slanted." The narrator then mentions the man's ignorance by asking, "Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?" The man with the hoe is also described as a "slave to the wheels of labor" and compared to a "monstrous thing" whose soul has been quenched. The narrator cries out to God and asks Him to redeem the laborer for all the wrongs committed against the unfathomable nameless workers who have lived miserable lives. The narrator then asks what will happen to the kingdoms and kings when the "dumb Terror" rises in rebellion. Essentially, the man with the hoe symbolizes the multitudes of oppressed laborers throughout history who have been taken advantage of by nefarious rulers. They live miserably, and both their bodies and minds have been worn out by endless labor.

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The poet describes the man with the hoe as a pitiful and pitiable figure. He is bowed down 'with the weight of centuries' and carries the 'burden of the world' on his back. Continuous, crushing labor has so dehumanized the farmer that he has become a 'thing that grieves not and that never hopes.' Furthermore, there seems to be no vehicle for his voice to be heard.

Basically, the poet draws our attention to the degradation that is the direct result of the farmer's subsistence lifestyle. He laments that the creature God has made to 'have dominion over sea and land; To trace the stars and search the heavens for power; To feel the passion of Eternity,' has become nothing more than an automaton, to be exploited at the hands of the rich and the powerful. The poet also argues that 'those who shaped him to the thing he is' have so marred God's creation that the farmer has become a 'monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched.'

Our attention is further drawn to the farmer's physical deformity. The poet uses the imagery of the 'dread shape humanity betrayed'  to characterize the suffering endured by the anonymous masses of victimized humanity. To that end, the poet questions how the powers that be will ever be able to straighten the 'aching stoop' before 'this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world' and the 'whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores.'

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