The Poem

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“Georgia Dusk” is a short poem of twenty-eight lines divided into seven stanzas. The basic rhythm is iambic pentameter; in each stanza, the first and fourth and the second and third lines rhyme (abba, cddc). The title establishes a specific time of day and geographical location. In the poem, Toomer presents the emotions evoked by the end of a day in the Deep South.

Jean Toomer begins with the sky, herald of sunset. As he paints a picture of the colorful sky, he creates a mood. The sky is too lazy and passive to prolong the splendid sunset. The reader is encouraged to adopt a similar mood, one that is receptive to the sequence of emotions presented by the poem.

The last word of stanza 1 announces the special event of this night, a “barbeque.” With this announcement, the mood shifts in the second stanza from indolence and passivity to song and activity. Toomer indicates that the activity is secret and at least partly religious in nature. The night’s “feast” will be an “orgy,” as people with “blood-hot eyes” express their deepest emotions in song. The reader is invited to watch and listen along with the poet.

After introducing the African Americans who are celebrating, Toomer shifts the mood again in stanza 3, returning to the quiet picture of the Georgia scene. While human activity stops with the sound of the sawmill whistle, the growing season of nature continues. References to “pollen” and “plowed lands” indicate that the time of year is early spring.

The peaceful picture of nature continues in stanza 4. Smoke from the smoldering mound of sawdust lingers close to the ground before rising to join the sunset sky. Stanza 5 returns to the people. The poet now recognizes in their celebration signs of a lost civilization. Recollections of an “ostrich” and a “juju-man” confirm that these are traces of the African societies from which the ancestors of these people were abducted. In the sixth stanza, the natural surroundings complement the songs of the people. Adding to the harmony, the pine trees seem to accompany the voices celebrating the coming of evening.

In the final stanza, the poet directly addresses the singers. As the twin sounds of pine trees and human voices continue to mingle, Toomer calls on the singers to transform the people. Moving away from the pagan connotations of some of the words mentioned earlier in the poem—“orgy,” “High-priests,” and “juju-man”—Toomer asks the singers to make the “cornfield concubines” sing like virgins and to give the people “dreams of Christ.”

Forms and Devices

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“Georgia Dusk” is a poem characterized by repetition and regularity. The patterns of rhythm and rhyme are maintained throughout all seven stanzas. The meter, iambic pentameter, is used consistently, with only a few variations. The rhyming pattern (abba, cddc, and so on) also remains uniform, and all of the rhymes are true rhymes. This formal regularity reflects a theme of the poem, the persistence of group memory through song and ritual. Repetition plays a key role in the way people use poetry to preserve and pass on their history.

Many sounds are repeated within the poem. Alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds in neighboring words and syllables, often occurs in the first letters of words. Examples in the first two stanzas are “setting sun” and “moon and men,” and, in the last stanza, “cornfield concubines.” Sometimes Toomer multiplies this effect by alliterating two or more sounds in a single line. The third line of stanza 3 is a good example: “Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill.” In this line, Toomer alliterates the

(This entire section contains 522 words.)

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Many sounds are repeated within the poem. Alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds in neighboring words and syllables, often occurs in the first letters of words. Examples in the first two stanzas are “setting sun” and “moon and men,” and, in the last stanza, “cornfield concubines.” Sometimes Toomer multiplies this effect by alliterating two or more sounds in a single line. The third line of stanza 3 is a good example: “Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill.” In this line, Toomer alliterates thes sound of the first two words (“Soft settling”), the p sound of two other words (“pollen” and “plowed”), the f sound in the first and last words (“Soft” and “fulfill”), and the l sound that appears in five of the seven words of the line.

Toomer uses other poetic devices to present the idea that the natural world acts in concert with the human world. One device is personification, attributing human qualities or feelings to an inanimate object or an abstract concept. The opening description of the sky as too proud and lazy to chase the sunset is one example.

In the last two stanzas, Toomer uses another poetic device, metaphor, to connect the natural and human worlds. In metaphor, a word or phrase is applied to something to which it is not applicable literally in order to suggest an imaginative comparison. To show how the sound of the pine trees in the wind seemingly blends with the singing of the people, Toomer calls the trees “guitars,/ Strumming.” The pleasant sound created by the wind moving through the pine branches makes the poet think of the strings of a guitar played by a person’s fingers.

In the opening line of the last stanza, Toomer reverses the comparison. Now the people’s songs are metaphorically compared to two qualities of the pines: “resinous and soft.” The songs, in other words, are as pleasant to hear as resin is to smell, and they stick in one’s memory. In the last line of the poem, Toomer repeats his earlier description of the people as “cane-lipped.” This metaphor is based on the dark, sometimes purplish colors of sugar-cane stalks. One association that the metaphor picks up is that of lips and the sweet taste of sugar cane. In the previous stanza, the song was described as coming from the cane itself rather than from the people in the cane. These repeated metaphorical connections of the people to the cane gain greater significance when they are related to the complete work in which “Georgia Dusk” appears, the book whose title is Cane.

Bibliography

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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.

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