“The Man with the Hoe”

The Universalist poet Edwin Markham wrote the poem below; he first presented it at a public reading in 1898, and it was first published in the San Francisco Examiner on 15 January 15 1899. The poem was republished many times thereafter, and reportedly earned Markham a quarter of a million dollars over his lifetime.1 When you read it, you’ll see that it is a poem based on the Universalist notion of the supreme worth of every human being.

In the early 20th century, Markham moved to Staten Island, New York, where he lived on Waters Ave.,1 not far from where my father lived at that time. My father still remembers Markham’s visit his elementary school. Markham lived in Staten Island until his death in 1940.

The Man with the Hoe

Written after seeing Millet’s World-Famous Painting
     God made man in His own image,
     in the image of God made He him. — Genesis.

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 that aching stoop;
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned and disinherited,
Cries protest to the Judges of the World,
A protest that is also 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 the world?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings—
With those who shaped him to the thing he is—
When this dumb Terror shall reply to God,
After the silence of the centuries?

1 thought on ““The Man with the Hoe”

  1. Dad

    Yes, I remember when he came to read his poetry to the assembled students in PS 30, the elementary school I attended in Westerleigh on Staten Island. It must have been about 1936 or 1937. He lived in one of the older houses of the neighborhood, which was of the style of the late 1800’s. Westerleigh was originally established as Prohibition Park, and most of the streets were named after prominent leaders of the temperance movement. (Demorest, Nealdow, Livermore, Fiske, Wooley, Wardwell, Bidwell, Waters are street names I can remember). During the 1930’s we lived in houses my parents rented on Demorest and Livermore Avenues.
    The book “Staten Island” by Dorothy Valentine Smith gives more information.
    Thank you for reminding me of these memories.

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