Edwin Markham, who has been called “the dean of American poets,” received national fame, and later worldwide fame, when he published “The Man with the Hoe.” It changed his career immediately. The poem consists of forty-nine lines divided into five stanzas of social commentary that focus on America’s working class and their sufferings. It is a striking poem of protest against exploited labor.
After viewing French artist Jean-François Millet’s world-famous painting of a peasant leaning on his hoe, The Man with the Hoe (1862), Markham was inspired to write his poem in 1898. He is reported to have seen the original painting, which had a profound effect on him, in San Francisco. Markham was at a New Year’s Eve celebration when he read the poem to an editor of the San Francisco Examiner. Shortly thereafter, the poem was published in that paper.
Because of its popularity, the poem was translated into many languages and reprinted in magazines, newspapers, and books numerous times. The poem’s success allowed Markham to spend more time writing and lecturing. In regard to the reform movements concerning labor struggles of the time, the poem generated much controversy. The newspapers received many letters regarding “The Man with the Hoe.” The poem was open to different interpretations. Some readers said that the poem was advocating socialism: Some were in support of the concept; others were against it. Others said the poem contained a prophetic message that could incite unessential reforms. Still others considered the poem a medium for expressing farmers’ and workers’ grievances.
For Markham, Millet’s peasant symbolized the exploited classes worldwide. Markham said that he viewed it as “a poem of hope. a cry for justice.” In the fourth stanza, Markham addresses the “masters, lords, and rulers in all lands.” He interrogates them with an implied sense of optimism:
Is this the handiwork you give to God,This monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched?How will you ever straighten up this shape,Touch it again with immortality;Give back the upward looking and the light;Rebuild in it the music and the dream;Make right the immemorial infamies,Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes?