I am the Reaper is a three stanza poem written by the English poet William Ernest Henley. Each stanza of the poem contains nine lines that vary in length but mirror their counterparts in the other stanzas. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of I am the Reaper
This piece, “I am the Reaper,” is a comparison of life and death. The speaker refers to himself as the Reaper at first, describing the way in which death takes life indiscriminately. Henley then goes on to have his speaker describe himself as the Sower, a giver of infinite life. The two powers are balanced out in the final stanza, making the speaker God-like in nature with the power to give and take at will. Life and Death are compared and described as being tangled together in nature, both crucial to the “ebb and the flood” of creation.
Analysis of I am the Reaper
This piece begins, and is punctuated by, all encompassing statements about the speaker’s state of being. The first, also serving as the title, is the first line of the poem,
I am the Reaper
The rest of the stanza, eight more lines, describes what it means to be the Reaper. The two lines that immediately follow the first are used to depict the Reaper’s hook. The speaker calls the hook, “headful.” It is attentive, carefully observing and analyzing everything that happens around it. With this hook the Reaper, and speaker of the poem, silently “gathers” all things. The rest of this stanza describes what the Reaper “gathers” and how, as the image and embodiment of death, knows no bounds in what he can take.
The use here of the word “gather” is a metaphor for the taking of life, each life that death takes is gathered with his hook. The Reaper is the bringer of death to,
Pale roses touched with the spring,
These roses are the first casualty of the poem, they are taken in the prime of their life, when they have just begun to bloom in spring. They are pale and helpless but death takes them anyway. Henley chose this image, the comparison of cold death, to this roses that were once full of life, to put a greater emphasis on the power of the Reaper. Nothing can stop him.
Next, the Reaper is said to take the “tall corn in summer” as well as fruits in autumn, and finally, “frail” flowers in winter. The poet has taken the reader through all four seasons, displaying the power of death to reach anyone at anytime. It can take new life, creatures in the prime of life, or aging life, near passing on its own terms. Even after all of this gathering and reaping, still death goes on, taking and taking whatever it sees fit to take. It’s hook is once again described, repeating the second line of the poem, but this time it is said to be “timely.” It knows when to take and what to take, no more no less.
The second stanza of the poem begins with another statement of being, this time,
I am the Sower.
The speaker now describes himself as the creator of life, the one who plants the seeds of life into the ground and allows them to grow; he gives them power. The following lines of the piece describe how and what life this “Sower” is responsible for. The second and third lines of the piece speak of how
All the unbodied life
Runs through my seed-sheet.
The speaker seems to be responsible for the care and metaphorical planting of all life that is yet to take form. The Sower has the potential to create endless life and all of this life is contained in the sheet of seeds the Sower carries with them. It contains the makings of all possible kinds of life, all the way down to the atom, and the ways in which atoms connect together. They are described as “quickening” each other. They build off one another, helping to stimulate more life. The life falls through the hands of the Sower and into the ground. It is always changing, but changeless in the way it continues to live no matter its form.
It is at this point that the second stanza takes on some of the elements of the first. The sowing is described as ceaseless, just as the reaping was in the first stanza. It goes on and on without end, these two opposites, keeping each other balanced. “Incorruptible life / Flows from my seed-sheet.” The life is powerful, the Sower plants, it cannot be ruined, death may come but more life will always be there.
The last stanza of these piece is a melding of the two previous. It is a bringing together of life and death to show how the two are endlessly tangled together. The speaker makes a new statement of being, calling himself both,
Maker and breaker,
He is responsible for both death and life. This gives the speaker a God-like quality that is hard to ignore. Continuing this description, the speaker says,
I am the ebb and the flood,
He is both the tide when it withdraws from the shore, and the tide that comes in and floods the land around it. One cannot exist without the other. The speaker refers to himself as embodying both the elements of the present and the afterlife, again, life and death, one in the same.
These elements of life and death are contained in everything, they are intertwined through out nature, “tangl[ed]” and “coil[ed]” around nature infinitely. The speaker gives further detail to the image of himself saying that he is “viewless,” this could mean that the Reaper and Sower, this God, or God-like power that is being described, has no personal views, no prejudice, and is only doing what it has to do. Through this perspective, it creates “all being.” This creation is not just through the bringing of life but also the taking of it; death gives life meaning.
The poem concludes with three more comparisons of opposites. The speaker is both the “taker and giver,” as well as being the womb in which life is made, and the grave to which it goes after death. It is,
The Now and Ever.
These last two words are capitalized for emphasis, but also to show them as being physical places, the present and the infinite, always existing next to each other.
About William Ernest Henley
William Ernest Henley was born in Gloucester, England in 1849. He first began to write poetry after having part of one of his life amputated when he was only 12 years old. He was eventually educated at Crypt Grammar School, and the University of St. Andrews. Throughout his life he wrote numerous collections of poetry including, A Book of Verses and Hawthorn and Lavender. He also worked as an editor and critic. He died in 1903.