The poem "The Man with the Hoe" was inspired by a famous painting of a man working tirelessly in a field with a hoe. The painting moved the author, Edward Markham, and he was inspired to write an interpretation of the painting.
In the first stanza of the poem, Markham first analyzes the appearance of the man. He comments upon his bowed back, which seems to carry "the burden of the world." He sees nothing but emptiness in the man's face and believes the man to be "dead to rapture and despair." He thinks the man can feel neither joy nor grief. This sets a mournful tone that carries on into the stanza and throughout the poem.
After analyzing and interpreting the man's countenance, the narrator is moved to question who has made the man the way that he appears. He seems to feel excruciating empathy for the man as he asks, "Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?" He wants to know how the man lost all hope and came to be this fixed, forlorn, and solitary figure.
The narrator then turns to question God's intentions. He asks, "Is this the Dream He dreamed who shaped the suns and marked their ways upon the ancient deep?" He wants to know if this is how God intended man to live. He seems almost angry at God when he says, "Is this the Dream He dreamed who shaped the suns and marked their ways upon the ancient deep?" The narrator's frustration and incredulity are evident as he simply states, "There is no shape more terrible than this."
The underlying message of the first stanza is that years of difficult manual labor have broken the spirit of the man with the hoe. The narrator wants attention drawn to this man's plight. He uses dramatic imagery and other verbiage, such as his multiple questions about who could have left this poor man almost lifeless. He turns from questioning God's intentions and concludes that this man's predicament is caused by "the world's blind greed."