Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Harvest Song by Jean Toomers

Harvest song

I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown. All 
        my oats are cradled. 
But I am too chilled, and too fatigued to bind them. 
        And I hunger. 
I crack a grain between my teeth. I do not taste it. 
I have been in the fields all day. My throat is dry. 
        I hunger. 
My eyes are caked with dust of oatfields at harvest-time. 
I am a blind man who stares across the hills, seeking 
        stack'd fields of other harvesters. 
It would be good to see them . . crook'd, split, and 
        iron-ring'd handles of the scythes. It would be 
        good to see them, dust-caked and blind. I hunger. 
(Dusk is a strange fear'd sheath their blades are dull'd in.) 
My throat is dry. And should I call, a cracked grain 
        like the oats . . . eoho-- 
I fear to call. What should they hear me, and offer 
        me their grain, oats, or wheat, or corn? I have 
        been in the fields all day. I fear I could not taste 
        it. I fear knowledge of my hunger. 
My ears are caked with dust of oatfields at harvest-time. 
I am a deaf man who strains to hear the calls of other 
        harvesters whose throats are also dry. 
It would be good to hear their songs . . reapers of 
        the sweet-stalk'd cane, cutters of the corn . . 
        even though their throats cracked and the 
        strangeness of their voices deafened me. 
I hunger. My throat is dry. Now that the sun has 
        set and I am chilled, I fear to call. (Eoho, my 
I am a reaper. (Eoho!) All my oats are cradled. 
        But I am too fatigued to bind them. And I hunger. 
        I crack a grain. It has no taste to it. 
        My throat is dry . . . 
O my brothers, I beat my palms, still soft, against the 
        stubble of my harvesting. (You beat your soft 
        palms, too.) My pain is sweet. Sweeter than 
        the oats or wheat or corn. It will not bring me 
        knowledge of my hunger.

In Jean Toomers poem, Harvest Song, Toomer is writing about African American slaves and the conditions they faced when harvesting.  Toomer echoes the man’s thoughts over and over again.  He speaks of being hungry in the first, second, fourth, sixth, and tenth stanzas. He explicitly says “I crack a grain between my teeth. I do not taste it.”  he is so worn out that his taste buds don’t function. The harvester feels cold, blind, deaf—hopeless!
He feels disconnected from the other people; he is lonely.  But he says he won’t call to his other friends because it won’t help him. The other harvesters are in the same situation, and he is afraid of the knowledge it will bring. He states, “I fear I could not taste it. I fear knowledge of my hunger”.  His life is horrible, and he is so hungry and tired that he is scared to not be able to taste the food.
He’s helpless.  Toomer is giving a voice to this slave who has lost the will to live.  Toomer uses the word reaper to describe the man, which he is literally.  But he also personifies death because he is alone, blind, deaf, hungry and in a situation where he is powerless.  There is no life to him.  An image of the grim reaper, a harbinger of death, is also a powerful image in the poem.
Why is he writing about this person?  To understand the black person’s hardships.  Also to give a voice to this poor slave. And he uses “Eoho” repeatedly towards the end of the poem like he is calling out to his people.


  1. I like the emotion you put in your analysis-it makes it feel more relevant to the poem. Also, the letters are hella big, which makes it hit harder... you do that on purpose?

  2. I really like the poem! I'd never seen it before so it was fun reading something new! Also, like Isaac said, the analysis is full of emotion which makes it much more interesting! Great blog! xoxox

  3. Why does he say "my pain is sweet"?

  4. Very good analysis of this poem's emotional core. The writer's name is Toomer, not Toomers. The poem is from his masterpiece, Cane, a collection of short stories and poems first published in 1923. Given the context of the rest of the book and the time in which it was written, I would contend that the speaker in this poem is not a slave but a sharecropper or laborer in the American South sometime in the decades following the Civil War, probably early 20th century, a time when blacks were technically free but almost entirely excluded from economic opportunity.