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Gwendolyn Brooks' "the sonnet-ballad"

Updated on July 13, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "the sonnet-ballad"

(Please note: Brooks titled her poem "the sonnet-ballad," using lower case.)

Gwendolyn Brooks' "the sonnet-ballad" is primarily an Elizabethan sonnet. Like the Elizabethan form, Brooks' sonnet consists of three quatrains and a rimed couplet. However, while the rime scheme of the traditional Elizabethan sonnet is ABABCDCDEFEFGG, Brooks' sonnet innovates and produces a slightly different rime scheme, ABABBCBCDEDEAA. While each line contains the required ten syllables, Brooks' meter varies from the traditional iambic pentameter of the English sonnet.

(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 sonnet-ballad

Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?
They took my lover’s tallness off to war,
Left me lamenting. Now I cannot guess
What I can use an empty heart-cup for.
He won’t be coming back here any more.
Some day the war will end, but, oh, I knew
When he went walking grandly out that door
That my sweet love would have to be untrue.
Would have to be untrue. Would have to court
Coquettish death, whose impudent and strange
Possessive arms and beauty (of a sort)
Can make a hard man hesitate—and change.
And he will be the one to stammer, “Yes.”
Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?

Reading of Brooks' "the sonnet-ballad"

Commentary

First Quatrain: Lamenting the Loss of a Tall Man

Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?
They took my lover’s tallness off to war,
Left me lamenting. Now I cannot guess
What I can use an empty heart-cup for.

The speaker of Brooks' "the sonnet- ballad" is a young woman who is lamenting that her lover has gone off to war. She complains to her mother, first asking, "where is happiness?" and then adding, "they took my lover's tallness off to war."

The speaker's emphasis on her lover's physique, his tallness, reveals that she thinks his size was the primary reason that "they" took him, and that emphasis also reveals her own strong attraction to his height.

The speaker admits that his departure has "[l]eft [her] lamenting." She does not know how she will fill her "empty heart-cup." She clearly pities herself, perhaps even more than she does her lover.

Second Quatrain: Pessimism and Regret

He won’t be coming back here any more.
Some day the war will end, but, oh, I knew
When he went walking grandly out that door
That my sweet love would have to be untrue.

The speaker is convinced that her lover will die and "won't be coming back here any more." Even though "the war will end" eventually, she strongly believes that he has left her permanently. She remarks that as he was "walking grandly out that door," she knew he "would have to be untrue."

Third Quatrain: Death as a Mistress

Would have to be untrue. Would have to court
Coquettish death, whose impudent and strange
Possessive arms and beauty (of a sort)
Can make a hard man hesitate—and change.

The speaker metaphorically likens her lover's death to a mistress, with whom he will be unfaithful to the speaker; thus, she repeats the line, "Would have to be untrue." She asserts that he "[w]ould have to court / Coquettish death."

The speaker declares that mistress death has a strange power with "[p]ossessive arms and beauty" that causes men to change, even "hard men." She believes that even if he does not die, after having courted this strange mistress death, he will not be the same man who left; therefore, she loses him either way.

Couplet: The Search for Happiness

And he will be the one to stammer, “Yes.”
Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?

Because this coquettish death has such a power over men, the speaker is sure her lover will "be the one to stammer" and say, "yes," to death's advances. The speaker has invested so much emotional treasure in her lover that she feels she cannot find happiness without him. In her state of depression, the speaker ends her lament with the same question she began it, "Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?"

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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