‘The Man with the Hoe’ is inspired by a painting by Jean-François Millet titled “L’homme à la houe” (“The Man with the Hoe”). This makes this poem an ekphrasis, or an example of a poem inspired by, or that describes, a piece of art. The poem can also be considered a protest poem, one that is concerned with social justice. Specifically, the poet is concerned with the treatment of the working class. A the time it as published, the poem was widely printed in newspapers and helped to start a new debate about labor and the distribution of wealth in America.
Explore The Man with the Hoe
Throughout this piece, the speaker focuses on the depiction of a man from Millet’s painting L’homme à la houe, or “The Man with the Hoe.” He focuses on how spiritually exhausted this man seems. He’s lost, without either hope or sorrow. The world has taken his soul from him, and Markham is determined to express his outrage. Through a series of questions, he challenges the listener to do something about this state of affairs. What are you, he asks, going to do to amen sure you can face future generations and God without shame?
In ‘The Man with the Hoe,’ Markham engages with themes of labor, equal rights, and more. Through his depiction of the laborer, who represents all working men and women, he is able to express the horrible unequal treatment across American society (as well as the rest of the world). He challenges readers to look at this man, or read about him, and feel as though this is the way God intended the world to be. He knows this isn’t the case and hopes that this protest poem will do something to shed light on the treatment of those who support the upper classes. Religion comes into play in the poem, as well. He knows as he addresses religious men and women throughout the country that they should be moved by these arguments. Then, if they’re not, perhaps they’ll be convinced to do the right thing when they face the prospect of God judging them.
Structure and Form
‘The Man with the Hoe’ by Edwin Markham is a four-stanza poem that is separated into stanzas of different lengths. There are a total of forty-nine lines in the poem. There is no single rhyme scheme that structures the entire piece, but there are several different examples of rhyme throughout the poem. It is written in blank verse, meaning that although it doesn’t rhyme, it does use iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed while the second is stressed. Like most poems, there are a few moments where the pattern is broken. For example, in the first line where “Bowed” is an obviously stressed syllable, creating a trochee.
Markham makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Man with the Hoe’ these include but are not limited to apostrophe, alliteration, repetition, and personification. Alliteration is a type of repetition, one that’s concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “back” and “burden” in line four of the first stanza and “Plato” and “Pleiades” in the third line of stanza three. There are broader examples of repetition in the poet’s use of language and imagery. Anaphora is another specific example.
An apostrophe is a type of figurative language that occurs when the speaker talks to something or someone that cannot hear them and/or cannot reply. This might be a deceased person, an animal, or even an object. Personification occurs when the poet imbues human characteristics on something non-human.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
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?
In the first stanza of ‘The Man with the Hoe,’ the speaker begins by describing the man mentioned in the title. He’s “Bowed by the weight of centuries” while he works in the field. He looks around him, and anyone who saw him would read “emptiness of ages in his face.” This is a dark beginning, one that suggests that this man has been through a great deal. The man carries a great weight, one that the speaker compares to the “burden of the world.” This is a more poetic way of saying that the man with the hoe has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The speaker starts asking questions in the next lines, something that continues into the second stanza. He wonders how this man came to be in the state that he’s in. He compares the workingman to an ox and to a “thing that grieves not and never hopes.” This man has neither hope nor more sorrowful emotions. He seems to be past all of that.
Through the use of several questions and the literary device is known as accumulation, the poet probes the situation for an answer. He wants to know who’s fault it is that this man’s light is gone.
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?
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.
In the second stanza, the questions continue. The speaker asks the listener, and anyone else who might have an answer, if this man could possibly be the same noble being that God created to “have dominion over sea and land.“ Through these questions, this speaker is trying to emphasize how inhuman this man seems.
By asking if this is the dream that God dreamed, the speaker is implying that no, this is not what God intended. There is no way that this man’s terrible shape was a divine creation. The man is “more tongued with censure of the world’s blind greed.“ He is filled with “menace to the universe.” The speaker also expresses his opinion that nowhere in hell could one find a shape worse than this man’s. He thinks that this man’s spiritual health is a threat to everyone.
What gulfs between him and the seraphim!
Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him
Are Plato and the swing of Pleiades?
What the long reaches of the peaks of song,
The rift of dawn, the reddening of the rose?
Through this dread shape the suffering ages look;
Time’s tragedy is in the aching stoop;
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned, and disinherited,
Cries protest to the Powers that made the world.
A protest that is also a prophecy.
The third stanza of the poem also includes several questions. But first, the speaker begins with an exclamation. He exclaims over the difference between this man and “the seraphim,“ or the angels. The poet reminds the reader that this man works every day of his life. He has no time for the words of Plato, nor could he study astronomy. The speaker alludes to Pleiades as a reference to astronomical information. Art, music, literature, none of it can reach this man’s mind. He is suffering in a way that puts up a wall between any of life‘s greatest pleasures.
In the sixth line, the speaker declares that one can look at this man’s body and see the suffering of all the workers and laborers throughout history. His “dread shape“ is frightening. All the tragedies throughout the time that workers have had to endure are in “the aching stoop.”
The poet continues on, using alliteration and more examples of accumulation to fully emphasize how dark and dreadful this man’s current state is. He has been denied, or disinherited, from a fair share of everything that he worked for. This is a classic argument for the empowerment of the working class. But, not all workers accept the state. Some “protest the powers that made the world.“
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
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?
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?
In the long fourth stanza, the speaker addresses “masters, lords and rulers in all lands.” He asked if this is what God intended. “This monstrous thing” can’t possibly be God’s will. He asked them to take a look at what they created and analyze if they are themselves doing God’s will. Will they really receive the blessings that they desire by exploiting workers in this way? He asks them how they plan to reverse the damage that they’ve done. How will this being soul be revitalized? More questions follow. The speaker inquires about the return of light to this worker’s mind, and all those to he represents, as well as their joy, dreams, and hopes. How will you, the upper classes, those who benefit most from the labor of the working class, right these wrongs?
In the final lines, the speaker reiterates his questions. He asks those listening, the ruling classes, how future men and women will judge what they’ve done. The future will see how “you” treated this man.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Man with the Hoe’ should also consider reading ‘I Hear America Singing’ by Walt Whitman, ‘The Negro Mother’ and ‘I, Too, Sing America’ by Langston Hughes. The latter is one of Hughes’ best-known poems. It’s personal and moving as it expresses his opinion, as a Black man in America, that he’s been left out of the American dream. He’s the “darker brother” that no one wants to see. ‘The Negro Mother’ is an emotional poem told from the perceptive of a woman and former slave. In ‘I Hear American Singing,’ Whitman celebrates the diversity of America and looks at the country from a more optimistic perspective.
Some other examples of ekphrasis are ‘The Arnolfini Marriage’ by Paul Durcan, which was inspired by “The Arnolfini Marriage or Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife” by Jan van Eyck and ‘The Dance’ by William Carlos Williams, which was inspired by a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder known as “The Kermess” or “Peasant Dance.”