The Man with the Hoe

by Edwin Markham

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The Poem

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515

"The Man with the Hoe" was written during a period of social and political upheaval, characterized by the rise of labor movements and an increasing awareness of workers' rights. It can be seen as a reflection of these movements, addressing the need for social reforms and advocating for improved working conditions and the fair treatment of laborers.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, increasing industrialization and urbanization led to the rise of exploitative labor practices, widening income disparities, and social unrest. The Progressive Era emerged as a response to these challenges with Edwin Markham as one of its most influential poets.

By shedding light on the struggles of the laborer and emphasizing the need for empathy and social justice, "The Man with the Hoe" aligns with the key concerns and objectives of the Progressive Era reformers. It speaks to the growing awareness of inequities, the call for workers' rights, and the demand for political and economic changes that characterized the era. With "The Man with the Hoe", Markham challenges the dominant laissez-faire ideology. He promotes the idea that society has a collective responsibility to protect and uplift its most vulnerable members.

The opening phrase, "Bowed by the weight of centuries," reflects the immense historical burden of oppression endured by the laboring class. This symbolism highlights the dehumanization and exhaustion of the laborer, echoing the plight of workers throughout history. One of the central symbols in the poem is the image of the man with the hoe itself. The hoe represents the toil and struggles endured by the working class.

Published in 1899, this poem draws upon the iconic painting L'homme à la houe by Jean-François Millet, which depicts a weary and downtrodden farmer taking a moment’s rest. Through vivid imagery, striking symbolism, and skilled poetic techniques, Markham effectively conveys the larger themes of human suffering, social justice, and the need for empathy.

To accomplish this, Markham employs blank verse throughout the poem. It allows him to focus on the message and emotional resonance of the poem without the constraints of a specific rhyme pattern. This freedom contributes to the poem's accessibility, drawing readers into the narrative and allowing them to connect with the plight of the laborer on a deeper level.

Furthermore, the use of iambic pentameter in "The Man with the Hoe" creates a steady and rhythmic cadence. The consistent pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables mirrors the repetitive and laborious nature of the worker's toil in the field. It captures the relentless cycle of backbreaking labor and emphasizes the monotony and oppression faced by the laboring class.

Markham asks many rhetorical questions throughout this poem. These are meant to directly engage the reader and pull them into a sort of conversation with the poet. Markham asks, "Who made him dead to rapture and despair?" and "How will the Future reckon with this Man?" These questions challenge the reader to reflect on the social and moral responsibility of those in positions of power. They serve as a call to action, urging the audience to examine their own roles in addressing societal inequality.

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