Jean Toomer Poems
Self-Reflection Jean Toomer’s Beehive
When placed in an environment of high stimulation, populace, and activity, one may begin to feel the desire to escape or detach from civilization. Such environments, most notably urban cities, often consist of a variety of tall buildings, which contain numerous tiny living spaces. Such buildings are overcrowded and congested with residents, and have soon evolved into human colonies or beehives. Living in a beehive may appear to provide a cramped and disheveled lifestyle, however it can also create an emerging sense of self-consciousness. In Jean Toomer’s poem, Beehive, uses of imagery, analogy, metaphor, and persona promote the connections between rural and urban spaces and suggest that urban space has a potential to encourage self-reflection.
Natural imagery is used in vivid descriptions of modern urban life as the speaker observes the bustling world around him. Analogies of jam-packed buildings and their inhabitants as beehives and their bees are used to describe the chaos of daily citizens as they metaphorically produce honey for the comb of the global capital. Also included is a persona, intoxicated by the sweetness of such a honey, which longs for the peace and serenity of rural space. Critics favor Toomer’s alertness to “the solitude and melancholy of being merely one among millions” (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, The Paris Review) as well as Toomer’s “effective strategy of weakening the speaker’s position” by using a “self-reflective speaker type” (Daniela Kukrechtova, De-Symbolized Lyrical Cityscapes of Jean Toomer, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Gwendolyn Brooks).
The aura of loneliness and disconsolation remains constant as the speaker describes his desire to escape from urban civilization in a self-reflective manner. Jean Toomer immediately describes lively images of the eternal bustle of bees as they work in their hive: “There swarm a million bees… bees passing in and out the moon…silver bees intently buzzing”. As bees are making their way through their hive, physical imagery is applied as the speaker watches them. The speaker, a “drone” (male bee), describes his current physical state: “Lying on my back, lipping honey”, which indicates a sense of solitude and relaxation. As the speaker is in this physical state, he begins to develop the desire to “fly out past the moon” and “curl forever in some far-off farmyard flower.” Natural imagery of the graceful moon and the desolate farmyard flower is used to describe the speaker’s need for the openness of nature in rural space, while physical imagery of flying far away and comfortably curling into a ball is used to express the speaker’s desperation and urgency to detach from urban civilization and find solitary peace. There appears to be a change in imagery as the speaker chooses to describe his own desires instead of continuing to describe the urban chaos around him, such a change possibly caused by the speaker’s condensed environment. The shift in imagery also “discloses a shift in the speaker’s consciousness from spiritual identification to spiritual alienation” (Robert B. Jones, The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer). Thus, the emotional and spiritual transition of the speaker is made more recognizable through the use of various images of urban commotion and rural quietness.
The most prominent use of analogy in this poem includes a beehive and an urban city. Toomer describes the city as a “black hive,” which instantly exudes a racial perspective. Toomer composed Beehive while residing in Washington DC during the early 1920’s, a predominantly African American city at the time. Therefore, the analogy of the “black hive” is relevant towards the observations of the speaker, as African Americans appeared to be the leading racial group in urban environments during the time in which the poem was written. The term “beehive” may be defined as “a man-made receptacle used to house a swarm of bees” (Collins Dictionary). The human “beehive” in which Toomer describes in this poem consists of the same qualities, as metropolitan apartments are man-made and used to house numerous individuals at once. The analogy of a beehive and its bees and a crowded apartment and its residents “depicts the null life as being equivalent to the mass-mind activity of bees accepting their worker function within the collective without questions or struggle” (Chezia Thompson-Cager, Teaching Jean Toomer’s 1923 Cane). In other words, the analogy expresses the weariness, powerlessness, and mundanity in which the speaker grasps as he observes the routines of numerous city workers.
The weariness, fatigue, and congestion in which the speaker notices appear to affect his outlook on city life. After he watches the “bees passing in and out the moon”, he starts to feel the need to “fly out past the moon” and escape the “waxen cell” of the world he is in. The speaker is also lipping honey, “a valuable product of the hive’s labors” (Gerry Carlin, Reading Jean Toomer’s ‘Cane’). Toomer appears to use honey as a possible metaphor of “culture or love, or community and the riches contained in social relationships” (Gerry Carlin, Reading Jean Toomer’s ‘Cane’). Toomer uses rural metaphors, such as beehives, bees, and honey to describe aspects of urban environments, such as apartments, the working class, and culture. Thus the analogies and metaphors of urban environments bring great emotion to the speaker and allow him to become more contemplative, as a connection between rural and urban spaces is also made.
The use of persona becomes present in Toomer’s use of a first-person perspective. The persona identifies itself as a “drone”, a lazy and idle male bee. The drone lies on his back and watches hardworking bees while honey is dripping from his mouth. As the drone observes the urban modernization around him, he begins to develop feelings of unhappiness and discomfort. A moment of self-reflection arises, as he “realizes that lying on his back and lipping honey does not finally satisfy him” (Daniela Kukrechtova, De-Symbolized Lyrical Cityscapes of Jean Toomer, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Gwendolyn Brooks). He longs for the simplicity and naturalness of the countryside, as the city appears to be “artificial, forced, and infertile” (Tania Friedel, Racial Discourse and Cosmopolitanism in Twentieth Century African American Writing). Toomer uses the persona of a drone in order to express his longing for eternal freedom, whether it is psychological, racial, or environmental. As the drone lies on his back and watches the city, he “feels the effects of industrialism” and becomes self-contemplative as he “struggles to find identity in the modern world” (Kevin R. Raczinski, Jean Toomer, Sherwood Anderson and the Complexity of Black Modern Consciousness). The drone becomes drunk on “silver honey”, “a representation of the money that is generated as a result of the relentless, exploitive activity from the ‘bees’” (Zac Ben Hamad, Black Urbanization: Adapting to Social Advancement), which he appears to use to distract himself from his need for quiet unity. However, the silver honey does not pacify him, as he continues to feel alienated, fractured, and displaced. The self-reflective force of urban space is thus overpowering, as intoxication cannot eliminate the secret thoughts in which Toomer buried in the persona of a drone.
As the buzz of urban life appears to be quite beautiful to many, Toomer does not want to participate in it. Sitting in the middle of such an environment creates a great space for observing, as the drone observes his fellow worker bees. After a long period of environmental examination through the use of imagery, Toomer begins to undergo psychological examination as he exposes his desire to escape to the calm countryside. Analogies of worker bees and exhausted city laborers create a greater sense of psychological desolation and distaste for urban society in Toomer as he observes his environment. The metaphorical waxen cell of his society also expresses his feelings of entrapment and isolation. The use of persona allows Toomer to express his emotions towards urban life and to question his own contentment with himself through the voice of another individual. Due to the limited space surrounding his body as well as the numerous amounts of individuals surrounding his apartment, Toomer realizes that he is only one amongst millions. This realization allows him to think about his own purpose in society, and whether he wants to continue to be a part of it or not. As he contemplates upon himself and the world around him, he becomes more aware of his dissatisfaction and thinks of places in which he would rather spend his time. Such consciousness arises from the populous environment surrounding him, which clearly demonstrates the compelling force of self-reflection upon an individual in urban space.