(Artist: Jean-François Millet)

After coming across Jean-François Millet’s graphic piece originally titled, ‘L’Homme à la houe’ (1860-1862), Edwin Markham became compelled to write what would be the most infamous poetic pieces of his career. What appears to be a tall man leans over on a club like an object against farmland. Grass fields and animals are illustrated just along the vanishing point of the piece. The man appears to be a field worker with an expression of exhaustion and labor. Millet is one of the most notable French painters of his era, who often depicted through his realistic works the lower class and peasants of France in the 19th century. Markham himself was also known to push political conversation through his work. He was born in Oregon City but shortly after moved to California and spent the rest of his adolescence there. His parents both divorced in his early life; both were ranchers. Similarly, Millet had his experience of farm labor at a young age, though Millet’s family was of a much lower class. After his college years, he dedicated himself to teaching and then later was appointed as a school administrator.

The Millet-inspired poem became Markham’s most acclaimed piece after it was published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1899. According William R. Nash of the University of Illinois’ English department, “The success of ‘The Man with the Hoe,’ which was reprinted literally thousands of times in dozens of languages before Markham’s death, paved the way for Markham’s advancement and also became the title work of his first book of poetry, The Man with the Hoe and Other Poems (1899).” Markham provoked the conversation concerning the treatment of working-class people. This unanimously connected not just with the American people, but people all over the world who protested. In just 49 poetic lines, you’re brought into the reality and perspective of the laborers, all while posing questions on a system constructed to oppress. Markham divinely doesn’t romanticize these experiences in any way. He fervently places you on the fields in an endless shift fatigued by crude labor through his words. This has not only prolifically applied to the times in which it was written but unfortunately is still practical in today’s climate. Markham’s notable reputation went in decline for the remaining years of his life after the peak of this poem.

“The Man with a Hoe” is a protesting allegory of the hard-laboring and working-class people. Sound devices aren’t identified and for a good reason. If rhyme and rhythm were a priority, the message wouldn’t quite resonate as effectively. There’s a definite perception on just what Markham was analyzing when coming across Millet’s painting.

“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.”

Without viewing Millet’s painting, Markham perfectly painted the expression of the man being described. You’re able to feel an emotion that’s unsettling immediately and throughout this piece. You imagine a time of distress and emptiness. The line “and on his back the burden of the world” alludes to the position in which Millet has painted the peasant man. It signifies the level of class in which a farmer is identified, not just in a metaphorical sense but also literal. In a hierarchal scale, the farm workers are positioned to its lowest, also making them subject to serving the classes above them.

What remains throughout this poem is the constant interrogation of life in which peasants are forced to surrender. If life is told to be fair and equal to any other man or woman, why do most feel hopeless? You’re brought to question whether there’s the life of labor for some, and the fruits enjoyed by others. Just like an animal, should you be content with life, or should you strive to fight for what is more desirable? Of course, every human should bear the right to their circumstance of life, but as this poem emphasizes, this is not the case. Markham displays the inherent beauty of life but rebuts it with dissatisfaction. Max Weber’s definition of power, as stated by Erzsébet Szalai in Socialism: An Analysis of Its Past and Future:

“In general, we understand by ‘power’ the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a social action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action.”

Throughout history, we’ve witnessed proper adjustments in society due to an extensive collection of individuals apprehending their worth in a world that revolves around oppression. Particularly in America, this has been shown in periods, like the woman suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and anti-war movements. Movements like these aren’t precisely exclusive to historical eras but also still relevant to our society today. In our digital world, started by a hashtag on social media and a union of fearless women, the #MeToo movement has exquisitely represented the meaning of power. No longer willing to suffer abuse and sexual trauma experienced in the workplace, and by those who hold power. In the period that this poem was written, Markham has used his medium to give voice to those suffering as well. After being well received mostly in the 20th century, this protest of the ill-treatment in labor caught the awareness of media and pushed a dialogue which was scarce before. Markham has been recognized through this achievement almost as much as he was criticized. Leonard D. Abbott praises the poet in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, published in 1902:

“Edwin Markham, more than any other poet in the English language, can claim the honor of being the Bard of Labor, –the true product of the last great movement that is destined to shake the world to its base.”

In his life, Markham witnessed the birth of the labor movement, which lasted primarily through the 19th and 20th century around the advancement of industry in America. Unions were formed to fight for better working conditions. In the form of action, the topic of labor protest was heavily active in his lifetime.

Further into the poem, Markham starts to shift his language and begins a plea to a higher power. The act of resistance towards the oppressor can only prompt change by those encountering the harsh reality. Society has always turned a blind eye to the suffering of those living in poor conditions and risking their life to make ends meet. While this continues to exist, the picture painted in media often is a parallel utopia of wealth. Photographer Lewis Hine has revealed through images a time where children’s innocence was ripped from them and replaced with hard labor. Captured from years 1906-1918, they’re shown working in factories, coalmines, and cotton mills. Just like Markham, Hine used his medium to bring attention to the labor exploitation. George Dimock states in the 16th volume of Art Journal,

“He [Hine] begins by discussing his photographs of children in the street trades as examples of ‘publicity in our appeal for public sympathy.’ He proceeds by endorsing in relation to commercial advertising as a way to promote visibility, influence, and reputation of the social worker.”

Innovatively using your medium to express social concerns is by far the only way to keep the conversation ongoing and the issue prevalent. Art is often perceived as beautiful and fantasy- like, yet it has its way of allowing you to spin the narrative and portray the voiceless. We’re vividly painted, through free-versed lyrics, the suffering of the powerless.

Markham concludes his poetic protest in questioning the result. “How will the future reckon with this man?” He asks how the world will react once the underdogs rebel. The only threat to harmful authority is the oppressed realizing their worth and revolting. Also, in history, this has shown itself to be warlike. During the civil rights movements, protesters often found themselves jailed, brutally mistreated or even killed. Markham exposes his awareness of the negative impact of rebellion in his final lines.

“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?

How can equality be restored without tragedy? In the intro of this poem, the experience is told, but Markham cleverly positions the idea of this experience as terminated. If the beauty of the world comes at the expense of labor exploitation, how do we answer to God? Just like Markham, Millet and Hine; the light for protesting against suffering should never go out. Whether it’s photographing the reality, painting the scene or lyrically contesting, it continues to keep afloat the conversation. Today we’re more than privileged to find be given access to these actions and dialogues. New social mediums have allowed us to engage in the artistic expression like never before. Imagine if Markham was given to the ability to view Millet’s work sooner through a scroll on his phone. If anything, artists today are one of the most influential individuals in society. Communities are more rebellious today, but in comparison to when ‘The Man with the Hoe’ was written, the underdogs still are voiceless.

Works Cited

“Markham, Edwin (1852-1940).” Encyclopedia of World Biography, Gale, 1998. Academic 

Murphy, Alexandra R. Jean-François Millet : Drawn into the Light. Williamstown, Mass. : Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute ; Pittsburgh, Pa. : Frick Art & Historical Center ; New Haven : Yale University Press, c 1999., 1999.

McPherson, Heather, author. “Millet, Jean-François.” Oxford Art Online, 2003.

WALLER, SUSAN. “Rustic Poseurs: Peasant Models in the Practice of Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton.” Art History, vol. 31, no. 2, Apr. 2008, pp. 187–210.

Guthrie, W. N. “Markham’s Poems.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 7, no. 4, 1899, pp. 499–502. JSTOR

Szalai, Erzsébet. Socialism : An Analysis of Its Past and Future. Vol. 1st ed, Central European University Press, 2005.

Leonard D. Abbott. “Edwin Markham: Laureate of Labor.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, 1993, p. 274

Dimock, George. “Children of the Mills: Re-Reading Lewis Hine’s Child-Labour Photographs.” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 16, no. 2, 1993, pp. 37–54. JSTOR

http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/760/jean-francois-millet-man-with-a-hoe-french-1860-1862/

http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/markham/life.htm

Ashley McLean is a visual artist from Queens. Her short story “Absent” is also published in this issue. Ashley says, “Outside of photography, writing allows me to get all my ideas down and tell stories beyond the experience of a photograph. ‘A Painting Turned to Words’ began with my professor assigning everyone in the class a quote, and asking us to go further into dissecting and analyzing its meaning.”