March 24, 2018

Poem read in bed in the middle of the night — after a conversation that got me looking up another poem by the same man.

The poet is Edwin Markham, and the poem — not the one that made me look up Markham — is based on this Millet painting:


The Man with the Hoe (1898)

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?
Here are Markham's reflections on his poem.

39 comments:

Darrell said...

The poem wouldn't be that much different if it were The Man with the Ho . . .

Wince said...

The Man with the Ho (2018)

Pretty much CNN's Trump coverage since the Russian collusion narrative imploded.

traditionalguy said...

A very cogent picture and poem for today. I suspect it is about the Socialist's conquest of the right to own private property and the right of those owners to bear military grade arms to protect it from them. We could have a children's march to start the conquest.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

The fundamental issue is ergonomics. The handle of the hoe is too short, requiring him to leans over to use it. Extremely inefficient.

Gahrie said...

Eh...he's just a Deplorable. Probably a bitter clinger too.

traditionalguy said...

The serf was legally obligated to stay on the Land and is owned by the Lord over that land. He is farm machinery that comes with the Lord's farm. Therefore he was not a human.

And then 60 some Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock and that lead to the upset of all Classes and Lords and Serfs. It lead to 1776 and the Day in July that they drove old Rome down. And Rome( a/k/a Great Britain) still wants their North American land with serfs back.

Ann Althouse said...

The poem made me think about Jordan Peterson's "12 Rules for Life," which I've been reading, but one thing about reading that book is just about everything reminds you of it. Still, if you've read the book and the poem, do you know what I mean?

Mid-Life Lawyer said...

The is what I think the poet is trying to say - "Communism would be great if they just let enlightened guys like me run things."

YoungHegelian said...

The question of what to do about "drudgery" remains unclear in the Leftist literature of the 19th C. Who was going to do the awful, dirty, back-breaking tasks?

Mostly the question got answered through magical thinking. Marx's famous quotation on the death of specialized labor under communism is one such example of magical thinking, but at least it implies that the problem would be solved by sharing the drudgery among the workers.

In reality, what solved the problem for everyone solved it for the the lefties, too: mechanization. Well, that and the developed world's tendency to export their drudgery to the third world, where it's still going strong, except not under the watchful eye of painter & poet.

Eleanor said...

My favorite Markham poem is a lot shorter-

He drew a circle that shut me out —.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Freeman Hunt said...

Geeze. Don't take a moment to rest in your farming or some jerk will come along and call you an ox.

The Cracker Emcee Refulgent said...

These days it would be the The Man With the Phone “whose social media blew out the light within his brain”.

WK said...

As I read it I am hearing it in Bruce Springsteen’s voice.

chuck said...

The handle of the hoe is too short

Heh. One of my uncles punished his kids by making them hoe the corn with a short handled hoe.

rhhardin said...

In my experience they just drive back and forth in an air-conditioned cab listening to CDs, a three times a year. Plant, spray, harvest.

Freeman Hunt said...

Millet's hoeman is tired which is no mark against his dignity. Markham's hoeman is a dumb beast stripped of humanity.

I'll take Millet's.

buwaya said...

Part of the problem with the poets world-view - and I've always hated this poem, and its attitude - is that the poet does not in fact understand the peasant, and is unqualified to work with that hoe. The poet does not know the complexities of the peasants profession.

Agriculture is difficult stuff. That peasant and his ancestors invented, collectively, the high-output agriculture of Europe, that managed to provide the surpluses that could support the gentlemen-poets, and lots of more useful sorts also. This was not an accomplishment of some educated geniuses.

And that goes for everything else. Everything.

The modern world was made not by some educated class, but by the evolutionary efforts of generations of peasants and craftsmen getting their hands dirty. The history of the world is the history of technology, and the version of history of tecnology that is taught, most of it, is an evil lie.

None of this came from a scientific breakthrough by some elite caste of geniuses, but through slow incremental improvements by hordes of anonymous workers. Year after year things got more sophisticated. Higher yields, better biomass conversion, cheaper iron, more precise instruments. Of their own, if one believes history.

Much of this was not even written down. It just happened, out of the blue, as far as that poets caste was concerned.

tcrosse said...

The short-handled hoe was traditional in the cultivation and harvesting of sugar beets. It was a very hard way to make a living.

WK said...

Buwaya said : “Part of the problem with the poets world-view - and I've always hated this poem, and its attitude - is that the poet does not in fact understand the peasant, and is unqualified to work with that hoe. The poet does not know the complexities of the peasants profession.”

Kind of like Bruce Springsteen.

Ann Althouse said...

"My favorite Markham poem is a lot shorter..."

Me too, and that's the poem I was looking up in the middle of the night a propos of the conversation. I was surprised to see that "The Man with a Hoe" was the poet's most famous poem, so that made me read it. I would have thought the drew-a-circle thing was the most famous. It sure was to me!

Ann Althouse said...

"Geeze. Don't take a moment to rest in your farming or some jerk will come along and call you an ox."

That made me laugh a lot because the poem really is incredibly presumptuous in looking at this man and seeing him as subhuman... deplorable.

By the way, try reading the poem while thinking about the 2016 election.

chuck said...

That peasant and his ancestors invented, collectively, the high-output agriculture of Europe

I think the English also played a significant role in the agricultural revolution. There were lots of incremental improvements, horse collars and such, but Jethro Tull started the systematic invention of agricultural tools. Some of America's greatest contributions to the modern world were agricultural machines, the combine and cotton gin come immediately to mind.

etienne said...

Each man thinking they are in a better place.

Truth be told, the same plague will kill them both.

tcrosse said...

By the way, try reading the poem while thinking about the 2016 election.

We think of little else.

William said...

It's a great poem, but that's not the way history happened. The people who felt all those ennobled feelings and thought all those rarefied thoughts were enabled to do so by the drudge labor of the peasants and millhands. The condition of the man with the hoe was not materially improved by the beheadal of Lavoisier and, in fact, such radical acts condemned him to another few generations of drudgery.

YoungHegelian said...

but Jethro Tull started the systematic invention of agricultural tools.

"So you ride yourselves over the fields. And you make all your animal deals. And your wise men don't know how it feels. To be Thick as a Brick." (about 40 seconds in)"

I know, I know, different Jethro Tulls! Chill.

Sebastian said...

Goes to show, ordinary people have been patronized by their inferiors for a long time.

etienne said...

Try reading the poem as the Parisians are eating rats, cats, and zoo animals during the Prussian siege.

Viande Canine et Féline - sign at the boucherie

Combien pour ce chien dans la vitrine?
Ce joli petite chien jaune et blanc,

Combien pour ce chien dans la vitrine?
Qui me regarde en frétillant.

Meade said...

"By the way, try reading the poem while thinking about the 2016 election."

"I love the poorly-educated."

tcrosse said...

Combien pour ce chien dans la vitrine?

Omaha1 said...

The poem does seem very condescending. As if the man depicted in the artwork has no feelings and no higher spiritual attributes. There is nothing wrong with manual labor. A person can find happiness in conquering the "forces of nature" and leaving work at the end of the day, knowing that some goal has been accomplished.

tcrosse said...

The poem does seem very condescending.

Right up there with Malvina Reynolds' Little Boxes.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground...


No, he does not gaze on the ground. He is gazing forward, quite possibly at the horizon ( although we can't see what is in that direction, so we can't be sure. )

His back is bent, but his head is up. But that doesn't fit the narrative.

etienne said...

I just feel sad that the clod has to wear wooden shoes.

That's the sound wooden shoes make on the cobblestones - clod, clod...

Earnest Prole said...

I know, I know, different Jethro Tulls!

Speaking of Jethro Tull, czech out "We Used To Know" from which the Eagles cribbed “Hotel California.”

Luke Lea said...

I feel so ignorant not being familiar with Markham's work. And I an English major and a laborer too!

David said...

The referenced essay by Markham is very interesting, and does support that Millet was, at least to a degree, presenting the man as Markham does.

However in Millet's explication the man has not yet surrendered.

My 'Man With the Hoe' will get me into trouble with the people who do not like to be disturbed by thought of any other world than their own. But I have taken up my position, and mean to make a stand there. . . . I see the haloes of dandelions and the sun, also, which spreads out beyond the world its glory in the clouds. But I see as well in a rocky place a man all worn out, who tries to straighten himself a moment and breathe. . . . Is this the gay, jovial work some people would have us believe in? But, nevertheless, to me it is true humanity and great poetry."

The man is now bowing but trying to straighten himself.

David said...

"NOT bowing."

David said...

"His back is bent, but his head is up. But that doesn't fit the narrative."

Read the essay by Markham that Althouse linked.