What image is used to convey the farmer's poverty in this poem?
De merchant got half de cotton
De boll weevil got de res'
Didn't leave de farmer's wife
But one ol' cotton dress.
An' it's full of hold, an' it's full of holes.
This farmer is apparently a grower of cotton, and cotton seems to be the image or symbol used here to convey poverty. Each line or idea conveys a new level of poverty.
Whatever crop he was able to harvest was only half his--he had to give the rest to the merchant, undoubtedly to pay off the debts he incurred waiting for the money the cotton was supposed to bring him. Line two tells us he only got part of the crop that was his--the cotton bugs (boll weevils) got the rest.
The last three lines are a bit more ambiguous, though they still use the idea of cotton as linked to poverty. Perhaps the farmer only had enough left to buy his wife one dress (made of cotton), but the "full of holes" image indicates the dress isn't new. The most likely explanation, then, is that his wife was down to one dress (and a pretty sad-looking dress, at that) and he could not afford to get her another.
Specifically, the images in this poem are of a rather sparse, bug-infested cotton field, and a moth-eaten dress.
I like the last line. The idea of a cotton dress being "full of holes" brings to light the immediate the notions of poverty. Somehow, women's dresses being in tatters helps to convey destitution and a sense of economic disadvantage. The southern farmer and agrarian life brought out in the poem helps to evoke this idea that there is economic challenge in this poem. The dependence on cotton, or any crop, is something that helps to extract the idea of enduring economic hardship. In the second line, this becomes clear as the farmer is not able to enjoy much of anything in terms of economic profit as middlemen was able to take what they wished. This predicament filtered down to the wife who could not get her dress fixed. From one image, or mental picture, much of the farmer's life can be constructed in terms of economic hardship.