To whom is the poem "The Man with the Hoe" addressed?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Edwin Markham's poem "The Man With the Hoe" is essentially addressed to the humanity of the world in general, but, toward the end, it directly addresses those who are specifically responsible for the condition of the subject, or the condition of others like him.

While it can be useful to know that the poem was inspired by Jean-François Millet's painting entitled "'L'homme à la houe," the poem stands on its own as a call to all humankind to treat one another more fairly. It does this by moving through what are essentially four different sections. Section one, composed of lines 1-4 of the poem, describes the subject, his "bowed" frame, "[t]he emptiness of ages in his face," "[a]nd on his back the burden of the world." In the second section, composed of lines 5-16, Markham asks a number of questions to his audience in an attempt to address the idea of responsibility for the man's condition:

Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes.
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave
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
And marked their ways upon the ancient deep?

Throughout this section, Markham utilizes repetition to build not only sympathy for his subject, but to also build animosity toward those responsible. Markham uses either "who" or "whose" on four different lines, suggesting that there is a specific person or group who must step forward and take the blame for the condition of the subject, but he is also subversively calling for the audience to help to find the guilty parties. He then continues to appeals to his audience and those responsible, should they be listening, by invoking the name of "Lord God" and suggesting that the man's condition, and the treatment of the man by the world, goes directly against the wishes of the Almighty.

The third section (composed of lines 17-32) shows Markham shifting his focus back to the subject by returning to definite statements regarding the subject's condition, stating that

Down all the stretch of Hell to its last gulf
There is no shape more terrible than this —
More tongued with censure of the world’s blind greed —
More filled with signs and portents for the soul —
More fraught with menace to the universe. (17-21)

At the end of this section, the poet begins to shift his attention from describing the subject and establishing sympathy to presenting a warning:

Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned, and disinherited, 30
Cries protest to the Powers that made the world.
A protest that is also a prophecy. (29-32)

This warning is fully established in Section four (lines 33-49), when Markham turns his attention specifically to those responsible, asking the "masters, lords and rulers in all lands" how they will fix "[t]his monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched" (19), how they will "[m]ake right the immemorial infamies, / Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes" (24-25). Once the poet has presented these questions, the section spilts in the last eight lines and presents the actual warning. Markham utilizes a refrain directed at the "masters, lords, and rulers in all lands" but this time moves from a question of how things will be set right to a warning of what happens if things are not fixed:

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands
How will the Future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings —
With those who shaped him to the thing he is —
When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world.
After the silence of the centuries?

By concluding his poem in this way, Markham has essentially established an ultimatum. He has spent time building sympathy amongst his audience, he has established the inhumane nature of the treatment, and he has put the blame squarely at the feet of the ruling class. Along the way his words have gained power, forged by his appeals to empathy, reason, and righteous indignation, and resulting in a choice: either those in power will make amends and begin to undo the damage they've done, or they will find themselves victims of their own, once silent, once human creature.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

“The Man With the Hoe” has two audiences, and throughout the poem poet Edwin Markham shifts smoothly from one to the other.

The first audience is anyone, or more specifically, anyone who is walking through the museum where the painting hangs. You might imagine an informed viewer or a professional museum scholar guiding you want to look at in the painting.

The second audience is much more specific and political. Markham explicitly indicates this audience near the end of the poem in this line: “O masters, lords and rulers in all lands…” The poem is addressing the political leaders of the world. Markham is prompting at least reflection and political awareness through this poem, and perhaps political change. He comes close to threatening these leaders with violence as the future—or this voiceless worker—judges them for how they have treated the workers of the world.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial