Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Jean Toomer’s “Blue Meridian” is a poem of prophetic implications, arguing that in America there is the possibility for a new world vision wherein all barriers between people will be overcome. Toomer’s visionary, polemical poem focuses on those dimensions of conventional Western, particularly American, society that have sought to exclude others with whom one does not desire to identify and shows the possibilities inherent in the American people for overcoming these barriers and becoming one with the “Universal Self,” the spirit behind all existence.

The poem was originally written in the 1920’s and was completed by 1931. An early portion of the poem, “Brown River Smile,” was published in 1932. Not until 1936 was Toomer, who is best known for the original book Cane (1923), an anthology of poems, short stories, and drama centered on African Americans, able to find a publisher for “Blue Meridian.” Even then, only a portion of the lengthy poem was published. The poem was Toomer’s last significant publication during his lifetime, and though admired by a select few, it did not earn him critical attention.

Since the late 1960’s, there has been a resurgence of interest in all of Jean Toomer’s work. In 1969, Cane was reissued; this led to a renewed interest in Toomer that has continued, and in 1980, a volume containing the full text of “Blue Meridian” was published.

Written in a free-verse style reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” “Blue Meridian” combines the ideas of Whitman, William Butler Yeats, and George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, coming to a conclusion based on Gurdjieff’s philosophy of unitism. There are also echoes of Hart Crane’s The Bridge, but the dominant influence on Toomer’s poem and life during the time of the poem’s composition was Gurdjieff.

At the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, which he founded in Fontainebleau, France, in the early 1920’s, Gurdjieff taught that the universe had a definite order and that the goal of life was to recognize the common source of all being, the godhead, through a conscious spiritual yearning toward the oneness of all creatures and a search for internal harmony. This higher level of consciousness would be achieved through physical and psychological means. People should avoid overemphasizing the differences between themselves and those whom they consider the “other” and recognize a commonness of humanity and spirit.

In Toomer’s poem, Gurdjieff’s philosophy is evident in the poet’s emphasis on the search for internal harmony and in his insistence on altering one’s perceptions to such a degree that differences between people become diminished and the oneness of all begins to be acknowledged.

The poem consists of more than eight hundred lines. The poem’s lyrical movement makes it difficult to interpret chronologically, but sections of the poem that are in italics are, according to some critics, the key to understanding the poem. In fact, one might even suggest that the sections in italics may be read as a separate poem. Certainly, the most important aspects of these sections are their movement from the black, to the white, to the blue meridian—representing an alteration in perception from the conventional categories of black and white to the symbol of the unity of all peoples and ideals in the middle ground, or meridian. Critic Jean Wagner refers to the “blue meridian” as the “synthesis of the Black and White Meridians.”

At the opening of the poem, Toomer introduces readers to the theme of America’s potentiality. The America he envisions would be capable of oneness with the godhead if all Americans, members of a special race of people, willingly committed themselves to being “spiritualized.” Immediately thereafter, he juxtaposes the two-line opening with lines in italics on the “black meridian,” the symbol of racial difference and oppression and of an extreme worldview that America must learn to overcome in order to reach the ultimate goal of oneness, which is symbolized later in the poem as the “blue meridian.” He urges readers to seek their spiritual side and to destroy all barriers separating human beings from each other and from God.

Like Whitman, Toomer uses “I” to represent the Universal Self, who is one with God. Circular images abound to represent the unity of all being. If humans—particularly Toomer’s ideal race of Americans—were willing to “Let the Big Light in,” the union of themselves with God and the spirit would be possible. Rooted in Eastern religion and philosophy, these ideas are derived from both Gurdjieff and Whitman.

Toomer soon introduces readers to another significant symbol, the Mississippi River. He sees the Mississippi as the equivalent in the West to the Eastern and Indian Ganges, which is considered a sacred river. He suggests that if Americans would commit themselves to becoming one with the universe and God, the Mississippi would be lifted to “become/ in the spirit of America, a sacred river.” At this point, the Mississippi has the potential of being a sacred river; when he returns to it much later in the poem, it is referred to as a sacred river because, in his vision, Americans relinquish all the false barriers and weaknesses of the races of which it is composed.

In the next section, Toomer, like Whitman, lists the varieties of Americans and suggests that they make up a complete whole—a oneness. More particularly, he declares that, whether one is of the East or the West, the human being is spiritually united to all through “an essence identical in all.” Moreover, the old gods have died and a new god of spirit and oneness must be found through such recognition of unity; again, the assumption in the last section of the poem is that this new unity will be realized.

Toomer then moves on to characterize the types of peoples who originally inhabited America. He begins with the Europeans, who, as a result of the rising industrialization of America, were overcome and “baptized in finance”—that is, materialism. People became nothing more than commodities “sold by national organizations of undertakers.” The African race, to which Toomer next turns, was forced to leave their homeland of “shining ground” and to possess “the watermelon”—a symbol of the victimization and oppression of African Americans. Also making up the American nation is the “great red race,” who, destined to be united with a new race Toomer labels “American,” also waited for “a new people,/ For the joining of men to men/ And man to God.” The...

(The entire section is 2730 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Egar, Emmanuel E. The Poetics of Rage: Wole Soyinka, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2005. Study of the political aesthetics of Toomer and two other major black poets.

Fabre, Geneviève, and Michel Feith, eds. Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001. Anthology of scholarly articles on the relationship between Toomer and other Harlem Renaissance writers.

Ford, Karen Jackson. Split-Gut Song: Jean Toomer and the Poetics of Modernity. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005. Reads Toomer’s works as exemplary of African American modernism.

Kerman, Cynthia Earl, and Richard Eldridge. The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. First full-length biographical study of Toomer. Kerman and Eldridge emphasize the personal, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of Toomer’s quest for a mystical experience with God and demonstrate what seems to have been Toomer’s failure to achieve the oneness he so desperately desired. Includes a bibliography of primary and secondary material.

McKay, Nellie Y. Jean Toomer, Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work, 1894-1936. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984....

(The entire section is 538 words.)