‘November Cotton Flower‘ is written using relatively simple language and easy to imagine images. But, it does benefit from a second reading once readers have encountered the final two lines. These present the previous content in a new light, one that’s worth exploring in more detail.
Explore November Cotton Flower
‘November Cotton Flower’ by Jean Toomer is a thoughtful poem that uses a southern cotton flower as a symbol of hope in winter.
The poem describes how winter takes all life from the southern United States. Everything is cold and barren, caused in part by drought. It forced the soil to drain all the water from the streams, and all hope seemed lost. But, the poem takes a turn in its last six lines, suggesting that there is, in fact, in the darkest moment, hope.
You can read the full poem here.
Boll-weevil’s coming, and the winter’s cold,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
In the first lines of ‘November Cotton Flower,’ the poet begins by describing a specific season in the South. The imagery is somewhat dark at first, suggesting that winter is smothering the life that could otherwise grow. The “seasons old” and the cotton looks rusty, like “any southern snow.” This references the nature of winter in the southern United States. It will become cold, but it’s unlikely that the southern states are actually going to see any snow.
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
In wells a hundred feet below the ground—
I the next lines, the dark imagery continues. The speaker notes how there has been a drought that affected the growth of plants in the soul. The streams dried up because the soil was taking all the water. Plus, “dead birds” (which are often used as symbols of freedom and hope) are found “In wells a hundred feet below the ground.” This suggests that they fell to the bottom seeking out water. Their depth is a depressing image. One can seek out hope a hundred feet underground and still find death there. Just when things seem darkest, there is a turn or volta in the poem.
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Beauty so sudden for that time of year.
It’s in these last lines that the true meaning of the poem is revealed. The speaker is not only talking about winter in the South. He’s talking about the treatment of people of color in that region of the world, the end of slavery, and the revelations of the Civil Rights Movement. It was at the darkest moment that the “flower bloomed” (a single cotton flower). Everyone was surprised, especially the old folks who knew only the negative the world had shown them.
The poem concludes with two thoughtful lines that suggest that things are finally changing. The “Brown eyes” of the Black men, women, and children living in the South can now “love…without a trace of fear.” It’s at this point that readers should take the time to read through the previous twelve lines of the poem, seeking out connections to the Civil Rights movement and allusions to slavery where they appear.
Structure and Form
‘November Cotton Flower’ by Jean Toomer is a fourteen-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a rhyme scheme of AAAABBCCDDEFGG. This unusual rhyme scheme is made more complicated by the fact that with fourteen lines, one is immediately led to consider the poem as a sonnet.
Despite this, the poet does not use any standard rhyme scheme associated with the sonnet form. Instead, choose to use rhyming couplets and four perfect rhymes that start the poem. Lines eleven and twelve are set apart from the rest as they do not rhyme with any other words. The final two lines are a rhyming couplet, evocative of the ending of Shakespearean sonnets.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: can be seen in the poet’s use of simple, yet effective, language. For example, “Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take / All water from the streams; dead birds were found.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “coming” and “cold” in the first line and “southern snow” in line three.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines six and seven.
The tone is dark and gloomy in the first eight lines but transitions into a tone that’s far more hopeful and optimistic in the second half of the poem.
The main theme is freedom from oppression. Hope is another important theme. These relate directly to the treatment of Black men, women, and children in the southern United States.
The speaker is unknown. They could be the poet, but since there are few details, it’s impossible to say. In the end, the speaker’s identity is not important when one is attempting to understand this piece.
He wrote this poem in order to present a powerful image of oppression in a new and interesting way. He wanted to turn the reader’s thoughts from a dark and depressing reality to one that is far more hopeful.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Jean Toomer poems. For example:
- ‘Georgia Dusk’ – speaks about the nature of society, specifically in the southern United States.
- ‘Portrait of Georgia’ – combines a series of images to juxtaposes two very different people and situations together.