Portrait in Georgia Poem by Jean Toomer Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


Portrait in Georgia is a poem written by the poet Jean Toomer. It first appeared in Jean Toomer’s modernist work Cain. Published in 1923, Cane is a unique blend of poetry and prose that explores the experiences of African Americans in the rural South and the urban North. Toomer’s writing in “Cane” reflects a modernist and impressionistic style, and the book is divided into three sections. The first part consists of poems, the second part contains short stories, and the third part is a play. The poem is short and simple and through the metaphorical images of lynches, describes a white woman. These two images, although conflicting,  blend to form a powerful and provocative image. 

About the Author 

Born on 26th December 1894, in Washington D.C., Jean Toomer (Nathan Pinchback Toomer) was an American poet, playwright and novelist. Toomer was of mixed-race heritage, with both African American and European ancestry. This diverse background greatly influenced his perspective on race and identity and he was associated with Harlem Renaissance and modernism. Toomer’s most significant literary contribution, “Cane,” was published in 1923. This work is a groundbreaking blend of poetry, prose, and drama that explores the lives and experiences of African Americans in both rural and urban settings. In addition to his literary pursuits, Toomer was involved in various social and spiritual movements. He explored mysticism, Eastern philosophies, and the teachings of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, reflecting his quest for a deeper understanding of human existence.


Consisting of seven short lines, the poem is structured as a single, unbroken stanza. This lack of stanza breaks contributes to the poem’s continuous and flowing nature, emphasizing the seamless progression from one vivid image to the next. The absence of a conventional rhyme scheme and meter enhances the poem’s modernist qualities. Also, it is interesting to note the that poem is written resembling a list, and works its way down the woman’s body. 

Lines 1- 4

Hair–braided chestnut,

coiled like a lyncher’s rope,


Lips–old scars, or the first red blisters,


The poem involves the description of a woman’s body, starting from the top of her head. The speaker describes the woman’s hair which is braided and chestnut in colour and compares its coiled quality to that of a lyncher’s rope. The speaker goes on to describe the woman’s eyes are “fagots” or bundle of sticks. Lastly, the speaker focuses on the woman’s lips and mentions the scars that are present there. Either they are old scars or the “first red blisters”, referring to the wounds inflicted on her during lynching. 


With the description of each physical attribute of the woman, the poet establishes the themes of violence and brutality that are present during lynching. The reference to the woman’s eyes as “fagots” seems as if the poet wishes to allude to the burning of the lynched victim. Also, the reference to the old scars that are present on the woman’s lips might be connected to the racial violence the woman might have experienced in the past. Thus, placing the poem within the context of the Civil Rights movement becomes a poignant commentary on the discrimination and racial violence faced by African Americans in the southern United States (especially Georgia) during the 1960s.

Lines 5-7

Breath–the last sweet scent of cane,

And her slim body, white as the ash

      of black flesh after flame.


The speaker moves further down the top of the woman’s body and next describes her breath. The woman’s breath is described as the final pleasant aroma of cane. The concluding line describes the woman’s slender body which is “white as ash of black flesh after flame”. 


The last lines describe the aftermath of the woman’s violent death, comparing her burnt body to ash. There is also a contrast set in this section. The sweet smell of cane that seems to emanate from her body is contrasted with the visually horrific description of her body, which is burned and white as ash. Also, the choice of a female subject intensifies the emotional impact of the poem.