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Edwin Markham's poem "The Man with the Hoe" was inspired by the painting L'homme à la Houe by Jean-François Millet, which depicts just what the title says: a man with a hoe. But of course it is not just a simple depiction of a peasant man bent over a rustic farming tool.
The first stanza of the five-stanza poem begins with a brief description of the man with the hoe:
Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Then the speaker of the poem asks a series of questions about this tragic figure, this empty, broken, burdened man. He wonders who killed the emotions in this man who can no longer feel "rapture" or "despair," who is no longer capable of grieving or hoping. In fact, the speaker calls this man "a brother to the ox," implying that he has been reduced to the position of an animal; and he wonders who "blew out the light" in this poor man's brain. A summary question for this stanza: who stole the soul of this poor man?
In the second stanza of the poem, the speaker again asks the questions he has after seeing this man with the hoe. He wonders if this is the kind of man the creator of the universe (God) intended to create. He asks if this is the man who was created to have "dominion over sea and land," the man God dreamed of creating. Then the speaker says of this broken man that
There is no shape more terrible than this....
A summary question: is this broken man what God envisioned when he created man to have dominion over the earth?
The third stanza also asks two questions, but the primary focus is on the distance between this man and the angels. The speaker says this man is insensible to learning, philosophy, dreaming, and beauty. His humanity has been "betrayed, / Plundered, profaned and disinherited...." Summary question: is this the best that man is supposed to be?
The fourth stanza changes directions a bit. Here, instead of addressing his rhetorical questions to God or the universe, the speaker talks to those whom he believes created this broken man. His question is an excellent one, describing both the man's deplorable condition and questioning their role in creating him:
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
Is this the handiwork you give to God,
This monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched?
The speaker continues his pointed assault on these aristocrats who are responsible for this broken peasant.
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?
His questions are fair and deserve an answer; however, they are largely rhetorical simply because these particular men have no apparent interest in re-making this man, just as they had no qualms about creating him. A summary question: how will you, who created this "monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched" man, give him back his humanity and his life?
The last stanza is also addressed to those who are responsible for creating this broken, man, but the speaker goes on to ask what might happen when the "whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world." This suggests his belief, or perhaps just his hope, that one day all the broken men and women will demand change. He also wonders how aristocrats will answer to God for their actions. Summary question: Are you prepared to answer for what you have done?
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