The Man with the Hoe

June 5, 2011by

While searching for information on the Van Gogh painting used for the cover of Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work, I discovered a similarly titled piece by Jean-François Millet: L’homme à la houe (The Man with the Hoe). I was immediately captured by the spent, bent, and hollowed man. It seems to me the perfect image of the impact of the industrial era on the life, work, and spirit of human being.

Equally profound is the effect Millet’s painting had on Edwin Markham, who composed this poem on the man with the hoe:

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 with the Hoe
Jean-François Millet, "L'Homme à la houe" (1860-62)

I don’t believe “hard work” in itself is anything to look down upon, no matter how great the heights to which our illusions of value may take us. Experience and Mike Rowe make a compelling case to the contrary. It is not the work itself that diminishes the man. His is as honorable a toil as can be found under the sun. Nonetheless, there is something about the conditions of his living that screams injustice, and this is the aspect of the poem that strikes a chord most deeply for me–the way Markham identifies the conditions that made him “a thing that greives”

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?

More tongued with censure of the world’s blind greed —

Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned, and disinherited,

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 it be with kingdoms and with kings —
With those who shaped him to the thing he is —

What diminishes is the fact that wealth and power have such a hold on the spirit of the world that those who have demeaned and exploited workers and work, even colors and classes, are praised, honored, and admired. Whether it be for belief in myths or plain old deceit, we cherish and give power to the very ones who plunder, profane, and disinherit. And the show goes on.

“How will the future reckon with this man?”

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