(Poets and Poetry in America)

Edwin Markham was one of an important group of social workers, writers, and ministers of the period before World War I who championed social justice and revolted against the practices of wealthy corporations. As such, he stood in the company of such figures as Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, William Dean Howells, and Josiah Strong. Since the strong social-conscience element colored critical reception for his works, Markham’s lyric gifts, which came to the fore in several longer poems, went largely unrecognized. His deeply personal poems—such as “Virgilia” and “The Crowning Hour”—included many that reflected on his own time as a child and as a younger man; other poems contained his religious reflections. A Christian-influenced sensibility appeared in even such poems as his evocation of Poe, “Our Israfel,” and contributed to the distinctive character exhibited throughout Markham’s body of work.

“The Man with the Hoe”

While exhibiting a formal rhetorical style that it shared with other poems of the time, “The Man with the Hoe” commanded attention by throwing aside the sentimental approach common in verse in the late nineteenth century. The first lines introduce their subject with short, stark, and straightforward lines:

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leansUpon his hoe and gazes on the ground,The emptiness of ages in his face,And on his back the burden of the world.

Although Markham immediately introduces a religious perspective, he does so through a series of questions, not statements, which ask if this exploited laborer could be the same as the elevated human creature of biblical teachings.

Markham avoided the approach of encouraging his audience to feel sympathetic compassion for the laborer. The worker is a figure to be regarded from outside, a “monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched.” While the true criticism being raised by the poem is directed toward “the world’s blind greed” and the “masters, lords and rulers in all lands,” the riveting image of the downtrodden man remains central. Markham identifies this “monstrous thing” as the “handiwork” of others, the concrete embodiment of the ills of the world.

“The Man with the Hoe” offers a critique of...

(The entire section is 991 words.)