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Gwendolyn Brooks' "The Bean Eaters"

Updated on March 7, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Gwendolyn Brooks


Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Bean Eaters"

"The Bean Eaters" is an American or innovative sonnet; it includes elements of the Elizabethan (English) and Petrarchan (Italian) sonnets, with a rime scheme, AABA CDCD EFGHF. This rime theme is similar to the English sonnet with its two rimed quatrains; however, it resembles the Italian which employs an octave and sestet, but Brooks reduces the sestet to a cinquain.

Also, as the Petrarchan sonnet's rime scheme usually permits a wider variation than the Shakespearean sonnet does, the American (or innovative sonnet) offers even wider variety for the poets's choices. Therefore Brooks's American sonnet is displayed in an especially innovative manner.

Brooks' most significant innovation was in reducing the traditional 14-line sonnet to a 13-line form—quite logically a move to correspond to the poverty theme dramatized in the sonnet. The aged couple eat very simply—"beans" while their living quarters implies a small income.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Bean Eaters

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

Reading of Brooks' "The Bean Eaters"


This poem demonstrates concretely the theme of poverty as the speaker describes the old couple in thirteen, instead of fourteen, lines.

First Movement: A Simple Meal of Simple Fare

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

In the first movement, old couple sit at their dinner table partaking of their simple meal. The meal is "a casual affair" with "chipware"on a "plain and creaking wood." No fancy china on starched table clothes for them!

Instead of"silverware," they employ "[t]in flatware," as they consume their "beans." The speaker implies that "this old yellow pair" may not be nourished on fancy food; yet they seem to present as healthy in spite of their simple fare.

Second Movement: Nourishing Lives With Spirit

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

This fascinating old couple is "Mostly Good," which suggests that they have a harmonious relationships with each other, and they function within the laws of their community. They likely nourish their spiritual lives as well as their mental and spiritual lives.

As no one else other than the old couple appears in the poem, readers will infer that the couple has likely outlived most of their friends and relatives. The couple demonstrates a strength of character in their daily persistence; they "keep on putting on their clothes / And putting things away." This old "yellow pair" does not demonstrate any boredom with what might seem to be a shabby existence.

Third Movement: Sharing Sacred Memories

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

As the old couple eat their beans, behave in a morally acceptable way, continue to put on their clothes every day, and put their belongings in their proper place, they enjoy their memories. They continue to share with each other their sacred memories as they consume their simple fare of beans.

Their possessions in their "rented back room" signal the nature of the memories they continue to cherish and likely speak about: "beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, / tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes." "Beads" symbolize an enthusiasm for color and beauty. Those beads likely still hang on a necklace or bracelet, presented to his wife by her husband on birthdays or other special occasions.

"Receipts" imply that the couple has always behaved responsibly with their money and other finances. "Dolls" hint that they like have raised children. The "cloths" imply material for sewing the doll clothes and also rags with which to dust and/or clean their meagre possessions.

"Tobacco crumbs" imply the smoking of a pipe or other materials. "Vases" which are often used as containers for flowers again signal a love of beauty. Also suggesting a love of beauty are the "fringes" that would drape down from covers on beds and/or chairs.

Rich in Blessings

A definite speaker does not appear in the poem. This phantom speaker's only purpose is to offer the bare facts of the old couple's existence. Upon first encounter, the life of the old "yellow pair" may seem unrewarding; however, after further consideration readers come to realize that this old couple's drama is shown to be not only interesting, but also filled with love, strength, peace, and blessedness. All of their fine qualities combine to make them rich, indeed.

Bronze Bust of the Poet


Life Sketch of Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks was born June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, to David and Keziah Brooks. Her family relocated to Chicago shortly after her birth. She attended three different high schools: Hyde Park, Wendell Phillips, and Englewood.

Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936. In 1930, her first published poem, "Eventide," appeared in American Childhood Magazine, when she was only thirteen years old. She had the good fortune to meet James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, both of whom encouraged her writing.

Brooks continued to study poetry and write. She married Henry Blakely in 1938 and gave birth to two children, Henry, Jr, in 1940 and Nora in 1951. Living on the Southside of Chicago, she engaged with the group of writers associated with Harriet Monroe's Poetry, the most prestigious magazine in American poetry.

Brooks' first volume of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, appeared in 1945, published by Harper and Row. Her second book, Annie Allen was awarded the Eunice Tiejens Prize, offered by the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry. In addition to poetry, Brooks wrote a novel titled Maud Martha in the early '50s, as well as her autobiography Report from Part One (1972) and Report from Part Two (1995).

Brooks has won numerous awards and fellowships including the Guggenheim and the Academy of American Poets. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, becoming the first African American woman to win that prize.

Brooks began a teaching career in 1963, conducting poetry workshops at Chicago's Columbia College. She has also taught poetry writing at Northeastern Illinois University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, and the University of Wisconsin.

At the age of 83, Gwendolyn Brooks succumbed to cancer on December 3, 2000. She died quietly at her home in Chicago, where she had resided on the Southside for most of her life. She is interred in Blue Island, Illinois, at Lincoln Cemetery.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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