Jean Toomer

Reapers by Jean Toomer

‘Reapers’ by Jean Toomer is a thoughtful poem about oppression. It is depicted through a very poetic and memorable metaphor depicting field workers and a mower.

Toomer was an important African American poet writing during the Harlem Renaissance. His work is often compared to that of Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. ‘Reapers’ is a great representation of the poet’s skill in composition and the use of figurative language.

Reapers by Jean Toomer


Reapers’ by Jean Toomer is a short, powerful poem that presents a metaphor comparing some human beings to cold machines.

The poem begins with an image of black field workers, or reapers, preparing for the harvest. They are individuals with the ability to distinguish between what should be cut down and what shouldn’t. In the second stanza, the poet transitions into talking about a mower that’s pulled by black horses through the field. The machine’s blades can’t distinguish between a field rat and the crops, cutting down the former indiscriminately.  

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-4

Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones


And start their silent swinging, one by one.   

In the first lines of this piece, the poet begins by presenting a clear and chilling image. They describe black “reapers,” the traditional image of death, sharpening their scythes on stones. This is a foreboding sight. It suggests that the reapers are preparing to take lives. But, the poem is far more realistic. In fact, these “black reapers” are field workers who are preparing for the harvest. 

The poet uses first-person perspective in these lines, allowing the speaker to use pronouns like “I” and “my.” They say that the repeats place the “hones / In their hip-pockets as a thing that’s done.” Then they start swinging their scythes one by one. The poet presents a different image in the next lines. 

Lines 5-8 

Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,   


Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.

In the next lines, the poet transitions to speak about the “mower” that’s driven through the weeds. It’s pulled by black horses (another connection to the previous lines and to death). The mower moves through the field, cutting down everything in its path. This includes a “field rat” that’s startled and starts to bleed. The blade, now blood-stained, moves on, cutting weeds and everything else it comes across. 

The machine lacks the empathy a human being carries with them into a task. It cuts with no regard for what it destroys. Here, Toomer is alluding to the difference between people who listen to their moral core and those who don’t. Someone who oppresses other people is, as the machine, less than human. Someone who harms others is like a machine. They cannot appreciate life. 

Structure and Form

Reapers’ by Jean Toomer is an eight-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The poem follows the rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD. This perfect rhyme scheme is accompanied by the use of iambic pentameter. This means that the poet’s lines contain five sets of two beats, the first of which is stressed and the second of which is stressed. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “sound,” “steel,” and “stones” in the first line and “continue cutting” in the last line. 
  • Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “with the sound of steel on stones / Are sharpening scythes.”
  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two. 


What is the tone of ‘Reapers?’ 

The tone is dark and gloomy. Overall, it isn’t very optimistic in its presentation of its imagery. The speaker is opening his frustration with the blade’s inability to distinguish between the rat and the crops. 

What is the theme of ‘Reapers?’ 

The main themes are death and oppression. The image of the rat being cut down indiscriminately is a metaphor for how some people (acting like cold machines) oppress others. 

Who is the speaker in ‘Reapers?’ 

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. 

Why did Toomer write ‘Reapers?’ 

He wrote this poem in order to present a powerful image of oppression in a new and interesting way. 

Similar Poetry 

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 juxtapose two very different people and situations together. 

Other related poems include: 

  • Daystarby Rita Dove – a powerful and moving poem. It describes a mother’s life and the only moment of peace she has throughout her entire day.
  • Parade’s Endby Daljit Nagra – taps into the themes of racism and the suffering of Asian immigrants in the UK in the 20th century.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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