Jean Toomer's poem, "Reapers" (1923) contains many darkly powerful images, physically and metaphorically, based largely (although not entirely) on the poem's repeated use of the word "black," in reference to both men doing harvesting work in the fields, and the beasts of burden that help them. Within this poem, Jean Toomer effectively employs repetitions of key words, phrases, and ideas, thus evoking within the reader feelings of both monotony and starkness, as the "Reapers" of the title go about their work. Toomer also creates, through the poem's images, a sense of unceasing mechanical motions (i.e., motions by human beings as well as by the sharp harvesting machinery itself), and equally mechanical, unfeeling scenes of death, such as when a field rat is chopped up by a mower drawn by black horses. The rhythmic, monotonous feeling of the poem is strongly reinforced not only by the fact that the poem has only one stanza, but also by Toomer's deliberate and skillful imagery that melds human labor; mechanical movement; and death into one. In this essay, I will analyze how Jean Toomer's imagery within "Reapers" contributes powerfully to this poem's overall effect.
The poem "Reapers" (1923) reads as follows:
Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones
Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones
In their hip-pockets as a thing that's done,
And start their silent swinging, one by one.
Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,
And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds,
His belly close to ground. I see the blade,
Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade. (Toomer, p. 797)
From the outset, then, Toomer's "Reapers" offers vivid imagery of black men ("Black reapers," line 1), apparently either slaves or sharecroppers in the rural American South, and "Black horses" (line 5), going about the rhythmic, methodical business of reaping a harvest in a field. According to Gibbons:
The title, "Reapers," conveys the image of a group . . . harvesting a field with scythes. The title can also convey thoughts of death, as our culture readily recognizes the name "Grim Reaper" to be the cloaked-figure of death. . . both the literal reaping men, and the theme of death are found in the poem.
("Studying Sounds of Scythes")
Further, Toomer's imagery within this poem creates a vivid impression that the labor of these men; horses; and reaping machines, is brisk, mechanical, unceasing, and at times brutal. Most powerfully, perhaps, the work of reaping the harvest, once begun, after "sharpening scythes" (line 2), then mechanically replacing the hones "In their hip-pockets ... A thing that's done" (line 3), stops for nothing: rest; injury; or death.
The poem begins with its main subjects, the "Black reapers" (line 1), i.e., the black men working in the fields, sometime either before or after the Civil War (the poem is not specific in this regard) -- readying themselves for today's work, with their first act of the day being "sharpening scythes" (line 2). Thus the poem begins with images of both sharpness and monotony, a juxtaposition of seemingly disparate images that nonetheless persists throughout "Reapers." Next a mower pulled by black horses, indifferently slices cuts through "weeds and shade" (line 8), destroying a field rat in its midst. As the poem states, of this mechanical; unceasing, and unfeeling work:
Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,
And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds, (lines 5-6)
Moreover, it is as if the "black reapers" themselves, along with "Black horses [that] drive a mower through the weeds" (line 5) are indistinct from the mechanical reaping instruments: "scythes" (line 2) and "a mower" (line 5), that, having caught a field rat in its blades, continues "cutting weeds and shade" (line 8). Further, Toomer's repeated references within the poem, to the color "black" (lines 1 and 5), as both a color and a metaphor, reinforce the fusion of men; machines, and horses.
For example, within line 1 ("Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones," it is unclear at first, before also reading the second line of the poem, whether the "Black reapers" are in fact men or machines. Moreover, the words "black reapers," perhaps also suggest images of death (as in 'Grim Reaper'), which is reinforced by a later line within the poem that describes the death of a field rat chopped up by the blades of a mower driven by "Black horses" (line 5). Within the poem, moreover, "black" represents both the color of death (e.g., "Black horses"), and also the ethnic race of those working methodically in the field.
These "Black reapers," having now sharpened their scythes and replaces the sharpening hones in their hip pockets; mechanically; "a thing that's done" (line 3), begin working, silently, monotonously, as if they were, themselves, but machines. The reapers go about their work silently, mechanically, mindlessly -- like the machines they use for cutting. In this way, the poem's imagery also implicitly suggests that this parallels to way these men (and other blacks during the long, uncomfortable years after the Civil War, were treated: that is, in cases like the poem describes, not all that differently than before the abolition of slavery in the rural South.
Furthermore, as McKay notes:
Toomer creates a contrast between the knowledge and purpose of responsible human beings and the automated disinterestedness of machines.
The reapers are deliberate in their preparations, and they have an objective and expectations of rewards. But no human awareness governs the actions of machines, which cannot comprehend the devastation they cause.
In establishing this division, Toomer indicts those who carry out acts of oppression against others and asserts that they act out of elements in themselves that are less than human. Such actions violate the human reason for being and the doer becomes like the machine, without the ability to nourish human life. ("On "Reapers")
As North observes, also, the mechanical rhythms and meter of the way the poem is written, serve to underscore the equally mechanical, impersonal nature of the poem's human and animal figures, and the manipulated movements of harvesting machinery and inanimate objects:
"Reapers" . . . is written in rhymed quatrains, rhymed so insistently, in fact, that it is possible to read the poem as having only two rhyming sounds for its eight lines. It is also rendered in complete, conventional sentences, and it has a fairly consistent iambic rhythm. . . . The rhythmic repetitions of the form stand for the repetitive nature of the work, which appears most obviously in the nearly perfect iambic line that represents the resumed swinging of the scythes" ("On "Reapers")
The monotonous, physically repetitive and mentally numbing nature of the field work Toomer describes is, as North further points out: ". . . relying . . . On a few movements reiterated again and again, and in a temporal sense, since it must be done every day, every season, season after season. It is" a thing that's done," a habit" ("On "Reapers").
Further, as North states:
As Toomer put it in a letter . . . "The supreme fact of mechanical civilization is
that you become part of it, or get sloughed off (under)." The line describing the death of the field rat embodies this change . . . Instead of working slowly and rhythmically, the mower moves on ineluctably, even killing the living things before it, which make a sound that is the very antithesis of the soft silent swinging of the scythes. The dying squeal of the rat affects the poetry itself, which is least iambic and most interrupted just here, as if the line itself were cut mindlessly and inorganically. ("On "Reapers")
Jean Toomer himself was not black but multiracial ("Jean Toomer"; "Photographs of…