What is the tone of the poem "Reapers" by Jean Toomer?

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Jane Ames eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While the mood and imagery of the poem are certainly gloomy, I would describe the overall tone of the poem as scathing. Toomer employs the dark imagery and word choice to convey a deep criticism of the subject of the poem. The poem takes issue with human beings acting without regard for the consequences of their actions, how it causes the death of innocent life.

In the second and third lines, the speaker notes that "I see them place the hones / In their hip-pockets as a thing that’s done." Within such a short poem (eight lines in all), why would the poet dedicate an entire line to observe that the field workers place their tools "in their hip-pockets as a thing that's done"? The speaker wants us to make note of the mundane nature of the destruction of the weeds, shade, and field rats. These deaths are routine; they are the everyday business of a field worker and viewed as innocuous. The poet, however, views them as anything but innocuous.

Toomer criticizes the cavalier way people work the land, as "Black horses drive a mower through the weeds, / And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds." Brutal diction (word choice) heightens the potency of this criticism. The blade is "blood-stained," and the scythes are sharp and "swinging," "cutting" in ruthless motion. In a larger sense, the poet scrutinizes and finds great fault with the attitude of human beings towards other life. We are too callous and casual in our destruction of other living things. We are "reapers" of death.

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jean Toomer's "Reapers" possesses a dark, gloomy, and pessimistic tone. (Tone illustrates the author's attitude toward the subject.) In the case of this poem, the speaker openly illustrates his or her anger with a mower's inability to differentiate between a life (a rat) and a crop. Humans who reap a field are able to stop and contemplate their harvesting. Mowers, very unlike humans, do not stop for anything. Instead, they simply plow over everything (illustrated by the "blood-stained" blades). 

The speaker's tone illustrates that he or she is worried about what is to come if machines are allowed to continue their thoughtless mowing. It seems that the speaker assumes, and fears, that machines will continue to push forward without consideration of what is in front of it. Essentially, the speaker seems to believe that the machines will be the end of the world (something which proves to be dark, gloomy, and utterly pessimistic). 

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