A Hard Row to Hoe

I’m not sure how many people today would identify with the central image in these two poems, but I certainly do. I’ve always had a garden my whole life, and there’s nothing more back breaking than hoeing a garden, particularly a new garden with lots of rocks. Perhaps, though, I’m even fonder of the image because it reminds me of all the times I would return home to find my mother in her last years weeding the garden, keeping it as spotless as she kept the house. Then again, maybe it just reminds me of Roethke’s excellent poem “Long Live the Weeds," and how we define ourselves by the weeds we fight.

The image of a person hoeing the garden is obviously an important image to Hugo because he used this same image in poems that were written years apart and a continent away from each other.

“The Way a Ghost Dissolves” seems to describe someone special to the Hugo who lived in White Center. She appears in two poems in his first book of poems.

The woman in the poem is at first glance a simple, unsophisticated woman, one who loves being out of doors working in the sun and dirt. She had a simple faith that if she planted and weeded the garden that God would take care of the rest. While the lady is unsophisticated and superstitious, she has managed to survive for years because of her faith in God, and because of her hard working habits. She’s even a good enough gardener to realize that a cover crop of rye in the fall will help to produce more crops the next year, something that not many gardeners today would know. She’s certainly persistent because despite her fear of snakes, she keeps on gardening more fiercely than ever.

Despite apparently mixed feelings about her, the narrator styles his working habits after her habits. He “will garden on the “double run,” trust in fate to keep him “poor and kind,” and “work until my heart is short.” He obviously feels a lot of love for this “ghost.”

“South Italy, Remote and Stone” appeared in Hugo’s third volume of poetry written eight years later. Here he uses the same image to portray an Italian peasant’s survival and, in an extension of the image, his own survival:

Here the element of the wind, or human spirit, is added to the image of hoeing. For it is the human spirit that drives the peasant to “hoeing rock,” hoping against hope that the hoe and “five stunted olive trees” will carry the family through the year. Here the image is also extended to include all the peasants whose “hoe and wind have fought this stone forever and lost.”

In the second and third stanza, Hugo portrays just how difficult life is for these people and the disastrous effects such poverty has. on “paese abbandonato,’ this abandoned country.
Abandoned or not, the people struggle to survive, loving even the tragedies of their lives, “the screaming wife” or the “crippled child.” If a girl happens to be pretty, she will be persecuted by the people and driven out or sent out on the road with “no chance to be saved by a prince or kind ox.” Here, according to Hugo, “only the ugly survive,” ugly because of what it takes to survive, here where there is no room for pity or mercy.

In the final stanza, Hugo suggests that this is very much like the kind of life, though in “much better soil,” that he has survived. He is forever on the road, but it is only in a place like this that he feels truly at home. His spirit helps him to hoe the row that he has been given in life.