Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reaping the Meaning Behind Jean Toomer's "Reapers" - Academic Paper


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.

Jean Toomer

Reaping the Meaning Behind Jean Toomer’s “Reapers”
Jean Toomer was a fabulous poet who embraced America’s “clashing cultures” in his writings (Ramazani 557). Toomer’s expertise did not go unnoticed as he established himself as a powerful poet, perhaps most prominently with his book Cane, which was published in 1923. As a biracial man, he could identify and empathize with both African Americans and Caucasians, heightening his ethos and the impressive strength and meaning behind his poems. His poem “Reapers,” written in 1923, emphasizes the vast cultural differences and inequalities between blacks and whites in America during the time period. He subliminally highlights the poor treatment of blacks through metaphor, symbolism, and other poetic devices.
The poem “Reapers” is an octet consisting of four rhyming couplets. The rhyme scheme is aabbccdd, and the poem is written in iambic pentameter. “Reapers” is only one verse or stanza. Toomer employs many poetic devices to convey his message to the reader. These poetic devices include alliteration, consonance, and imagery. Toomer’s diction also adds to the overall meaning and the impact of the poem on its readers.

The opening line of the poem identifies who the reapers are in just one word: “black.” This sets the whole tone of the rest of the poem and gives the reader a visual of whom the narrator is describing. The narrator does not speak of them as “dark” or “African,” but simply “black.” This is very blunt and straightforward to the point of almost being indifferent. The poem is a report of an experience, not necessarily a description of it. It is unsure of whether or not these reapers are slaves, but they are working in the fields. This could also imply blacks hired for cheap labor after the Civil War. Either way, the tone of the poem is very straightforward, yet descriptive. It is indifferent, as is the blade that maims the field rat.
Toomer uses alliteration and consonance to heighten the reader’s sense of the poem. In the first two lines, a hissing “s” sound is repeated to convey the harsh coldness of the scythes. Toomer writes: “Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones / Are sharpening scythes…” (1-2). The resulting sound of the letter s is similar to the sound of a knife being sharpened against a rock. It is a harsh, repetitive and unwelcome sound.
In line 4, the alliteration with the letter s continues with the reapers’ “silent swinging” of their scythes. More alliteration is used in lines 6 through 8 with the letter b when the rat is cut by the mower. The rat “bleeds. / Belly close to the ground. I see the blade, / blood-stained…” The b sound is powerful and strong. The sharp sound increases the dramatic effect of the tableau the narrator observes.
Toomer’s final use of alliteration is when the narrator notices that the blade goes on to “continue cutting” after striking the rat (8). This use of the letter c enforces the continuation of the mower and blade and how it does not stop when harming the field rat. It also alludes to the redundancy of the work and spinning rotations of the blade.
Toomer uses words with sharply contrasting sounds and syllables to create cacophony in the last three lines of “Reapers,” most prominently in 6: “And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds”. The cacophony adds to the effect of the noisy mower (Billy). The cacophony also creates a sense of chaos, which is something the rat is most likely experiencing as the blades approach and then slice it open. It is most likely unaware of what is occurring in the field where it is, at the moment, residing, and then all of a sudden a loud noise and machine approach, and in the next instant, the rat has been violently attacked by the blades.
Toomer’s diction is very deliberate and effective. The use of the word “reaper” is a double entendre in that a reaper is both the personification of death and a person who harvests, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The reapers in the poem harvest the field, and the mower inflicts a wound upon the field rat, which is most likely fatal. The traditional image of a reaper (death personified) is a figure in a black hooded garment with a scythe. The reapers in the poem are black and they carry scythes, thus connecting the men in the fields to reapers of death. The horses are black as well, and they are driving the mower, which is also a reaper. It too assists in harvesting and it too brings death to the field rat.
Not only are the men described as black, but the horses pulling the mower are also described in this fashion. This same description of each connects the two, making the men appear to be animalistic, as blacks were frequently viewed during the time period in which this poem was written. Blacks were seen as inferior to whites, as were animals, and suffered great prejudices simply because of the color of their skin. This animalistic view of blacks also connects the reapers to the field rat, another animal in the poem.
The field rat, which is harmed and presumably killed with indifference, is representative of blacks during the 1920s, as they were frequently harmed and lynched by whites. The field rat in the poem is minding its own business, “His belly close to the ground,” when he is suddenly struck by the mower. Whites would often lynch blacks unsuspectingly when they were doing nothing but minding their own business. The attack on the field rat is similar to the attacks on blacks.
The use of the word “rat” is very artful and exemplifies exceptional diction. A “field rat” is not a commonly mentioned animal to begin with. “Field mouse” is used far more frequently, but Toomer made a deliberate choice to use “rat” instead of “mouse.” Rats are creatures that are often associated with sewers and filth. Rats have a very negative connotation, and most people find rats to be grotesque and disgusting. Mice, on the other hand, have a slightly more positive connotation, and are sometimes associated to be cute and adorable. If a small, innocent field mouse is killed by a mower, the mouse will receive sympathy from the onlooker. However, if a field rat is killed, very little sadness is felt and there is virtually no sympathy for the rat. Toomer’s diction makes it seem more acceptable that the rat was killed by the mower. Whites who lynched blacks would often get away with their heinous crimes without many, if any, repercussions. Very little or no sympathy was given to blacks, as is reflected in the harm that befalls the rat.
Only the narrator sees the rat being slashed open by the mower. The horses do not stop, nor do the reapers. The blades continue turning and “continue cutting weeds and shade” (8). The ongoing blades represent life, their circular motion the ever spinning movement of the earth. The world goes on regardless of who or what dies. Some see an organism’s death, like the narrator, while others do not. In this instance, the narrator is playing the role of God, omniscient and all-seeing. The narrator sees the fields in which the reapers work and the horses drive the mower and what occurs in the fields.
Though traditionally “Reapers” has been stated to be about the loss of rural ways, I feel that there is a much deeper meaning to it. According to Cynthia Bily, “Toomer believed that people who harm or oppress others do so because they have given up their human qualities and have become like machines” (Bily). Also, the black horses that drive the mower are most likely owned by people of a higher class because both horses and mowers cost fair amounts of money. People who would be in the upper class and have the money to purchase such animals and machinery tended to be white. The white people’s machinery is what kills the rat. The mower is representative of whites and the rat is representative of blacks. Because the mower is what mutilates the rat, it is not unreasonable to assert the often violent mistreatment of black people by white people.
The vivid images Toomer creates are effective in conveying the overall message of the poem in that they paint clear pictures of what is occurring in the fields. The reader can instantly imagine the reapers sharpening their knives and the horses pulling the mower. The images increase the drama of the poem because it is so easy to see the violent destruction of the rat and the long, repetitive movements of the reapers. It heightens the effect of the indifferent tone of the poem because the images evoke a reaction out of the reader that deeply contrasts the almost apathetic tone of “Reapers”. Though the word “red” is never mentioned in the poem to describe the color of the blood, it is instantly imagined when the narrator speaks of the blood-stained blade and the how the rat “squealing bleeds” (6). The bright red of the blood is very different from the unforgiving black of the horses and the turn of the presumably silver blades. The blood brands the indifferent machine and is evidence of its apathy and unknowing cruelty to the natural world. Regardless of the blood, the machine continues on, similar to those who lynched blacks in the 1920s. The blood spilled by lynchers was quickly forgotten and became part of the past once the deed was done. Lynchers did to blacks what they deemed fit, and did not care or realize that they were taking lives. The mower, too, neither cared nor realized it was killing innocent creatures, such as the field rat. In this way, Toomer compares whites to apathetic machines that have no consciousness of what they are doing.
“Reapers” is an extraordinarily well-written poem by Jean Toomer that indicates cultural issues of the 1920s through various literary devices and exceptional symbolism. It is almost inconceivable how much meaning is behind this eight-lined iambic poem. Toomer is a master of his art; his diction and syntax are exceedingly well-controlled yet expressive and intuitive especially for the short length of “Reapers”. “Reapers” is a phenomenal poem written by a truly talented man whose poems have and will continue to transcend time.

Works Cited
Bily, Cynthia A. “Reapers.” Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition (2002): 1-2. Literary   Reference 
       Center. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.
"Jean Toomer." The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed. Jahan                 
       Ramazani. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton and, 2003. 557-58. Print.
Toomer, Jean. "Reapers." The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Ed.                        
       Jahan Ramazani. 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton and, 2003. 559. Print.

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