Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Reapers of Society

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.  (Cane, 5)

Given the length of Reapers I simply copied it in its entirety.

When I read this poem I had a mental image of a reaper (i.e. Grim) hacking away at the human population, his black horses drawing his black carriage as he demolishes the field rat (representing, in my mind, a man) and continues in his work. The reapers sharpen their scythes, “as a thing that’s done,” and continue their work regardless of the rat that they have just killed. The line, “thing that’s done,” implies that their actions have been going on for a long time and that the sharpening has become habit. It seemed to me, upon my first read, that the reapers were chopping down some form of society or societal value. A simple look at the introduction to Cane, however, speaks of Toomer’s relevance in “Afro-American” culture. The references to black reapers and black horses now take on a different relevance. Was Toomer implying that the black culture of his time was undermining society as a whole? I would argue, instead, that Toomer was saying that it was the black culture which was being undermined, particularly given the state of the nation at the time. I think that Toomer was creating a juxtaposition between the black horses and the rat, saying that the common black man was trampled by the ‘horses’ of society, the society that would kill a rat and continue on in their work. The idea of the blade of society cutting away from the Afro-American culture is continued to the last line of the poem, comparing Afro-American culture to, “weeds and shade,” weeds having an obvious connotation within the ‘garden’ of society as needing to be removed for the garden to flourish, while the black shade would only detract from the light needed for plants to grow.


  1. Andy, can reapers, horses, and rats all represent people here? What exactly makes you think so?

    Is there an implied equasion in the poem between "Black reapers" and "Black horses"? Both phrases open their respective quatrains, and they follow a similar syntactic pattern. If there is, indeed, an intentional parallel between the two, what does it say about their labor?

    Also: notice the simple, mechanical rhyme scheme there. Does it mirror the poem's theme in some way?

  2. On my first read through it seemed to me like the rat was being used as a metaphor for nature because of the word "field". It would also make sense that this word could be used to describe a field hand though. I think that the rat could be viewed as a number of things and is stated ambiguously for that reason. Either way it is a testament to the destructive ways of humans. It shows the way that we continue to destroy things without thinking of the overall consequences.

  3. This poem made me think about something similar to what you suggest here, but it sort of require a flip of the roles in the poem. The black reapers, and the black horses they drive seemed to represent the black culture. As the reapers cut through the weeds it seemed like Toomer was speaking of the way that the Afro-American culture was require to cut through the mess that society had put in their way, even to extreme lengths (in this poem is was illustrated merely by a field rat). This isn't to suggest that Toomer is saying that people may have to die or anything crazy like that, but just as weeds are a mess for a farmer, so the weeds may represent a thick mess that requires harsh means to move though for the Afro-American culture.