Inspired by a painting by Millet, Edwin Markham wrote “The Man with the Hoe” to draw attention to the plight of those forced into lifelong labor and poverty. He describes a man whose spirit has been broken by toil and compares his hopeless existence with the sacred image in which God supposedly created humanity. The speaker then addresses the rich and powerful who profit from the labor of people like the man with the hoe, predicting that one day the oppressed masses will rise up and sit in judgment over their former oppressors.
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"The Man with a Hoe" is an impassioned protest and lament on behalf of those in servitude, which gives voice, through one symbolic laborer, to the description of what workers become when yoked to the "wheel of labor" and gives voice to the description of intellectual and spiritual endowments workers are robbed of. The poem then asks "O masters, lords and rulers in all lands" if the broken "shape" of God's "dream" is really what they want to present to God as their own "handiwork." It further asks what they and the future will do when, after "the silence of the centuries," this "Man" rebels to "shake all shores" and to judge those who have stripped him of his mind, strength and humanity.
The first stanza gives a description of the one worker who is the symbol for all in servitude--who, in the last stanza, is called "Man" for his Humanity--that says he is weighted, empty, bowed down, burdened. He is also "dead to rapture and despair," grief and hope alike. The "light within his brain" has been blown out. The questions of whose hand made him so and whose breath blew out the light are rhetorically asked.
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes, ...
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain? (I)
The second stanza contrasts this description with one of how God created the "shape" of "Man" that he might "trace the stars," Man being what God "dreamed who shaped the suns." This equates Man, or workers, with the might of suns. The third stanza describes the gulf that separates the burdened, lightless laborer from the angels, saying the "dread shape" of Man "cries protest to God": Man, the shape of humanity betrayed, robbed, made unsanctified, and disowned protests to God.
Is this the Thing ...
To have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power;
To feel the passion of Eternity?
Is this the dream He dreamed who shaped the suns (II)
The fourth and fifth stanzas are apostrophes addressed to "O masters, lords and rulers in all lands." The stanzas ask if these potentates are proud of their "handiwork" and if they think their handiwork fitting tribute to give back to God. The stanzas further ask how they, now, and how the future, later, will react when this disowned, betrayed humanity abandons silence and rises up in rebellion, then sits in judgement over the "masters, lords and rulers" who broke and battered and betrayed them, who stole the light from them.
How will you ...
Make right the immemorial infamies,
Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes? (IV)
The latter half of the second stanza is a bit problematic for modern readers. In the phrase "there is no shape more terrible than this," the "shape" is the worker; it is the Man (representing Humanity). He is "terrible" in the sense of something being formidable or powerful (American Heritage Dictionary): the disowned Man after centuries of silent slavery is formidable, powerful. He is "tongued" with cries of protests against the greedy; he is "filled" with warnings about salvation for the soul; he is "packed" with the danger of rebellion waged against the universe.
Is this the dream He dreamed who shaped the suns
And marked their ways upon the ancient deep?
Down all the caverns of Hell to their last gulf
There is no shape more terrible than this--
More tongued with cries against the world's blind greed--
More filled with signs and portents for the soul--
More packed with danger to the universe. (II)
The poem "The Man with the Hoe," by Edwin Markham, was the poet’s comment on labor after observing the painting L'homme à la houe, in which a french peasant toils in the fields. The laborer serves as a symbol of a hard deprived life as mankind toils in the field. The man receives no reward for his labor nor does he have much time to rest before being back in the fields. For the man life is mundane and repetitive. The man has been equipped with the gifts of the ability to learn and know about philosophy and dreams, but they have been stripped away from him. He is a prisoner in the fields by something corrupt that uses him like an ox. The man, who was created in God’s image, falls short he believes of what God had expected for mankind. The poet questions if this was what was intended by God or has man’s own hand led to this man’s burdened life.
It is interesting to note that the painter, Millet, caused his government and the people around him to be concerned that he was making a Socialist statement about the painting. In the same way, Markham’s poem was not received well by the Aristocrats.
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