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.