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Edwin Markham's (1852-1940) "The Man With the Hoe" is a famous poem inspired by the painting L'homme à la houe by Jean Francois Millet (1814-1875). It was first read in public at a New Year's Eve party in 1898, and published soon afterwards. It portrays the hard labor of much of humanity using the symbolism of a laborer leaning upon his hoe, over burdened by his work, but receiving hardly any rest or reward. It has been translated into more than 30 languages.
Edwin Markham himself has explained the theme of his remarkable poem thus:
"The Hoeman is the symbol of betrayed humanity, the Toiler ground down through ages of oppression, through ages of social injustice. He is the man pushed away from the land by those who fail to use the land, till at last he has become a serf, with no mind in his muscle and no heart in his handiwork. He is the man pushed back and shrunken up by the special privileges conferred upon the Few.
In the Hoeman we see the slow, sure, awful degradation of man through endless, hopeless and joyless labor. Did I say labor ? No—drudgery! This man's battle with the world has been too brutal. He is not going upward in step with the divine music of the world. The motion of his life has been arrested, if not actually reversed. He is a hulk of humanity, degraded below the level of the roving savage, who has a step of dignity, a tongue of eloquence. The Hoeman is not a remnant of prehistoric times; he is not a relic of barbarism. He is the savage of civilization."
The main theme of the poem is that hard physical labor without any reward completely dehumanizes a person. The following line sums the theme of the poem:
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
The farm laborer has been dehumanized and brutalized so much that he has become almost an "ox!"
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