The Man with the Hoe
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?
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.
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.
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?
The Man Under the stone:
When I see a workingman with mouths to feed,
after day, in the dark, before the dawn,
And coming home, night after night, through
forward like some fierce, silent animal,
I see a man doomed to roll a huge stone up an
He strains it onward inch by stubborn inch,
Crouched always in the shadow of the rock....
See where he crouches, twisted, cramped, misshapen!
He lifts for their life;
The veins knot and darken—
Blood surges into his face.
Now he loses—now he wins—
Now he loses—loses—(God of my soul!)
He digs his feet into the earth—
There's a moment
of terrified effort…
huge stone break his hold,
him as it plunges to the gulf?
silent struggle goes on and on,
two contending in a dream.
The Man under the Stone appeared at the top
of the first page in the official AFL monthly magazine, the American Federationist, for July 1899.
"The Man With the Hoe" also crystallizes a hundred years of American labor protest poetry and song
and finally takes much of its message to a broad national audience. Markham no doubt knew some of that tradition, at least
John Greenleaf Whittier's 1850 Songs of Labor and Other Poems if perhaps not more ephemeral
texts like John McIlvaine's 1799 broadside poem "Address to the Journeymen Cordwainers L.B. of Philadelphia"; "Cordwainers!
Arouse! “The time has come / When our rights should be fully protected.”
But the tradition in America had
long been persistently dual: professional writers taking up labor issues and agitating in verse for decent wages and working
conditions and working people themselves producing their own rousing songs and poems. Philip Foner's marvelous 1975 American Labor Songs of the Nineteenth Century is
the most comprehensive collection. While the painting was the decisive
stimulus for the poem, Markham also clearly had in mind the great American labor struggles of the preceding decades, notably
the coal strikes of the 1860s and 70s, the rail strikes of the 1870s, 80s, and 90s, and such historic events as the Haymarket
massacre of 1886 and the Homestead, Pennsylvania, strike of steel and iron workers in 1892. Markham had himself been a farm
laborer and had herded sheep as a young boy, so he also had some direct knowledge of the sort of work he was describing. The
poem is effective in marshalling moral outrage and linking it to literariness on workers' behalf. Its indictment of the ravages
wrought by those in power was decisive for its time, in part because Markham treated exploitation as a violation of God's
will. The poem is equally successful at issuing a broad revolutionary warning to capitalists and politicians.