I ran across this painting by Millet in a book I was reading. I got the gist of the message, a tired peasant leaning on his hoe – and then continued my reading. Like a lot of information we take in, I didn’t really let anything sink in other than the quick impression it made.
In 1898 or so, a poet named Edwin Markham looked at this same painting and he didn’t just “look” at it like I did, he actually “saw” it, like an artist sees, into the core and soul of what is being portrayed. He wrote the following lines:
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?
(you can read the full poem here, it’s a little lengthy for this post)
It reminded me of how quickly we rush through all the information that blasts past us today. We read to finish a book, we look at art and photography but don’t really see things that are intended. We consume information like we consume the overabundance of calories in our food. Bolt it down and on to the next thing.
Markham looked at this painting with the eyes of a poet. He let it wash over him and feel what Millet was trying to convey. And it inspired him to put pen to paper to give the painting a voice.
If we DON’T do that, aren’t we just like the poor brute depicted in the painting? Dead to rapture and despair, grieving not and never hoping? These tough times have a lot of people up against the wall. It is easy to just concentrate on what it takes to get us through the day, and hurl ourselves into bed at night to repeat the routine. But that’s not really living.
The ability to feel and create is about the only thing that nobody can take away from you, no matter how loud your belly growls or how negative your checkbook balance is.
I have the feeling that if this painting was done today, it would be called “The Man In the Cubicle”. But the lesson would be the same.
It reminds me to stop and actually let yourself experience your day-to-day existence. Think and feel.
Or else you might just as well go get a hoe.