The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Reapers” is a short poem of eight lines in iambic pentameter rhymed couplets, a form sometimes referred to as heroic couplets. It appears as the second piece in Jean Toomer’s Cane, a collection of short stories, sketches, and poems intended to show the beauty and strength of African American life. The poem is spoken by a first-person narrator, but this narrator neither enters the action nor comments on it. This is typical of the work collected in Cane: The narrator usually selects particular details to present to the reader but trusts the reader to interpret the details wisely. Only rarely, and usually in prose pieces, does the narrator guide the reader more directly.

The eight lines divide neatly into two sections, each representing a different vision. In the first four lines, black field workers sharpen their scythes with sharpening stones. When they are finished, they place the hones in their pockets and begin cutting. The men are silent; the only sound in the scene is the sound of the steel blades being ground against the stones. The narrator, standing far away (physically or emotionally), dispassionately reports what he sees. In the second four lines, the narrator turns his gaze to another field or another day, and the silent black men are replaced by a machine, a mower, drawn by black horses. The mower has run over a field rat, which lies among the weeds bleeding and squealing. The mower blades, stained with the rat’s blood, continue on their path.

Reapers Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Reapers” is divided into two sections, two scenes, with no commentary from the narrator to help the reader interpret their meaning. That the two are meant as separate pieces is clear, both because of the fact that the only lines that are end-stopped are the fourth and the eighth and because of the pointed similarity of the openings of the two sections: “Black reapers” and “Black horses.” However, the two pieces are closely linked; Toomer has not written the poem in two separate stanzas but as two pairs of paired couplets. The meaning lies simply in the contrasts between the two parts, and the poet uses careful arrangements of sounds in the two scenes to emphasize those contrasts. In the first scene, silent except for “the sound of steel on stones” and the suggested swishing of blades through grass, the poet uses repetitive sibilant sounds as seen in the phrase just quoted and in the second line: “Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones.” The sounds and rhythms of the poem echo the sounds of the scene and direct the reader toward hearing the scene as peaceful and steady.

By contrast, the second scene features a noisy machine and a “squealing” rat, and the sounds of the lines are harsher, with consonants standing side by side to create cacophony. In line 6, the words “field rat, startled, squealing bleeds” must be read one at a time; the ending consonants of one word and the beginning consonants of the next word do not run well together and thus cannot be read aloud smoothly. The consonants in this section are more explosive. For example, the hard c of “continue cutting” is not found at all in the first section, and the insistent near-rhyme of “bleeds,” “blade,” and “blood” can only be intentional. Before turning to writing, Toomer had considered becoming a musical composer, and all of his poetry reveals a deep concern for the musicality of language. Critics have often commented on the lyrical cadences of his poems about natural beauty such as “Georgia Dusk” and “Evening Song” (also from Cane). “Reapers” is an example of his use of the same ear to echo the sounds of men and machines.

Reapers Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Benson, Joseph, and Mabel Mayle Dillard. Jean Toomer. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Byrd, Rudolph P. “Jean Toomer and the Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: Was He There with Them?” In The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, edited by Amritjit Singh, William S. Shiver, and Stanley Brodwin. New York: Garland, 1989.

Fabre, Geneviève, and Michel Feith, eds. Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Ford, Karen Jackson. Split-Gut Song: Jean Toomer and the Poetics of Modernity. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

Hajek, Friederike. “The Change of Literary Authority in the Harlem Renaissance: Jean Toomer’s Cane.” In The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture, edited by Werner Sollos and Maria Diedrich. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Kerman, Cynthia. The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

O’Daniel, Therman B., ed. Jean Toomer: A Critical Evaluation. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1988.

Scruggs, Charles, and Lee VanDemarr. Jean Toomer and the Terrors of American History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Toomer’s Cane as Narrative Sequence.” In Modern American Short Story Sequences, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995.