‘The Lovers of the Poor‘ by Gwendolyn Brooks is a scathing critique of the Ladies from the Ladies’ Betterment League, who engage in superficial charity towards the poverty-stricken community.
Through vivid imagery and powerful language, the poem exposes the stark contrast between the Ladies’ privileged lives and the harsh realities the poor face. Brooks highlights the insincerity and detachment of the Ladies while also criticizing societal inequality and the need for genuine empathy and understanding when addressing poverty and social disparity.
Explore The Lovers of the Poor
‘The Lovers of the Poor‘ by Gwendolyn Brooks portrays a scene where the affluent Ladies from the Ladies’ Betterment League visit a poverty-stricken neighborhood to offer charitable assistance.
The Ladies arrive in the late afternoon, their privileged appearances contrasting starkly with the impoverished surroundings. The poem emphasizes their attempts to help the ‘worthy’ poor while subtly expressing prejudice against those they deem too swarthy, dirty, or passionate.
The Ladies, trying to embody charity, are unnerved by the destitution they encounter—the stench, filth, and struggles of the poor, which are entirely alien to their sheltered lives. The poet highlights the Ladies’ disconnection from the harsh realities of poverty, contrasting it with their posh lifestyles in affluent areas like Glencoe and Lake Forest.
Their substantial citizen hostess appears overwhelmed by the state of her home, cluttered with makeshift newspaper rugs and struggling children. The Ladies feel horrified and out of place amidst this ‘make-do-ness’ and squalor, their money seeming insufficient to address the deep-rooted problems faced by the poor.
Despite their generous gestures, the Ladies can’t fully comprehend the plight of the needy. The poem touches on themes of condescension and the ineffectiveness of superficial charity, raising questions about the authenticity of their intentions. Brooks conveys the Ladies’ desire to escape the discomfort and return to their privileged lives.
As they leave the poverty-stricken area, the Ladies maintain their composed appearance, avoiding touching the walls and keeping their distance from the impoverished surroundings. The poem ends with the Ladies attempting to maintain their composure while escaping the loaded air of the slum.
This poem satirizes the patronizing attitude of privileged individuals who try to aid the poor without truly understanding their struggles. It critiques the superficiality of charity without genuine empathy and explores the complex dynamics between different social classes. The poem urges readers to reflect on the need for deeper understanding and meaningful engagement when addressing issues of poverty and inequality.
Structure and Form
‘The Lovers of the Poor‘ by Gwendolyn Brooks adopts a free verse form, evident in its single stanza consisting of ninety-nine lines. The absence of a traditional rhyme scheme or consistent meter allows Brooks to convey her critique with poetic flexibility. This form mirrors the complexity of the social issues she addresses, granting her the space to explore various facets of the Ladies’ Betterment League’s actions and the impact on the impoverished community.
The structure of a single extended stanza enhances the poem’s flow, giving it an almost conversational tone. This encourages readers to engage deeply with the unfolding critique, as Brooks dissects the Ladies’ superficial charity and contrasts it with the stark realities of poverty. The unbroken stanza mirrors the unbroken cycle of privilege and disparity that the poem seeks to unravel.
The poem’s length serves as a canvas for Brooks’ intricate examination of class, compassion, and privilege. The absence of traditional stanza breaks mirrors the interconnectedness of the issues being discussed, emphasizing the ongoing nature of societal inequality and the complexities of addressing it.
By utilizing free verse, Brooks defies conventional poetic constraints, allowing her to focus on the impact of her words rather than adhering to a strict structure. This form accentuates the power of her language, effectively conveying her message of the need for genuine empathy and understanding when addressing issues of poverty and social disparity.
In ‘The Lovers of the Poor,’ Gwendolyn Brooks addresses several themes, shedding light on social issues and human behavior. One of the central themes is the disparity between social classes and the patronizing attitudes of the affluent. Brooks critiques the Ladies’ Betterment League, a group of privileged women who visit the poor neighborhood to offer charity. The Ladies’ condescending behavior and discomfort with the impoverished surroundings exemplify the disconnect between the privileged and the marginalized.
Another theme explored is the ineffectiveness of superficial charity. Despite their generous gestures, the Ladies fail to grasp the depth of poverty and its systemic roots. Brooks highlights this when the Ladies try to address the poor’s struggles with their clean money, reflecting the superficiality of their aid.
Prejudice and superficial judgments are evident in the poem. The Ladies express subtle biases against the “very very worthy and beautiful poor,” demonstrating their inclination to help only those who fit their idealized image of deserving recipients. Their hesitations towards those who appear “too swarthy, dirty nor too dim” illustrate the biased lens through which they view poverty.
The poem delves into the discomfort of the Ladies as they encounter the impoverished reality. Brooks emphasizes the stark contrast between the Ladies’ opulent lifestyles in places like Glencoe and Lake Forest and the squalor of the slum. The Ladies’ attempts to maintain their composed appearances and distance from the surroundings highlight their unease.
Additionally, Brooks explores the notion of performative charity, where the Ladies engage in charitable acts not out of genuine empathy but to fulfill a social obligation. Their detachment from the poor’s struggles and their eagerness to escape the discomfort reinforce the superficiality of their efforts.
Finally, the poem also touches on the resilience and survival of the poor despite their challenging circumstances. The imagery of “children children children” and their ability to endure reflects the strength and determination of those facing adversity.
Gwendolyn Brooks skillfully weaves various themes into ‘The Lovers of the Poor,’ shedding light on class disparities, prejudice, performative charity, discomfort, and the resilience of the marginalized. Through her powerful imagery and nuanced portrayal of characters, Brooks encourages readers to reflect on the complexities of social issues and the need for genuine understanding and empathy.
Poetic Techniques and Figurative Language
In ‘The Lovers of the Poor,’ Gwendolyn Brooks employs various poetic techniques and figurative language to convey her powerful message.
- Imagery: One technique she uses is evocative imagery, enabling readers to visualize the stark contrast between the affluent Ladies and the impoverished neighborhood. For instance, the “late light slanting in diluted gold bars” paints a picture of the Ladies’ luxurious world against the backdrop of poverty.
- Irony: Brooks also employs irony throughout the poem. She describes the Ladies as “proud” but hints at their “mercy and murder.” This irony underscores their patronizing behavior and superficial empathy toward the poor.
- Metaphor: Figurative language, such as metaphor, adds depth to Brooks’ portrayal. The phrase “pink paint on the innocence of fear” symbolizes the Ladies’ attempt to mask their discomfort with a false sense of compassion.
- Enjambment: This is a technique where a sentence or phrase runs from one line to the next without a pause. The technique creates a flowing and continuous narrative, much like the Ladies’ ongoing inner dialogue and attempts to rationalize their actions.
- Alliteration and Consonance: Through alliteration and consonance, Brooks enhances the musicality of her lines. For example, “softest care, served by their love, so barbarously fair” emphasizes the contradictory nature of the Ladies’ charity.
- Symbolism: Brooks uses symbolism to emphasize the Ladies’ privileged status. References to “Spode, Lowestoft, candelabra” and other affluent possessions showcase their wealth, highlighting the vast economic disparity between them and the poor.
- Repetition: Brooks also employs repetition for emphasis. The repetition of “children” in the middle lines of stanza six reinforces the poem’s focus on the resilience and enduring spirit of the poor.
Gwendolyn Brooks masterfully employs various poetic techniques and figurative language as she effectively conveys the various themes. These literary devices enrich the poem’s message and encourage readers to reflect on the profound societal issues presented.
arrive. The Ladies from the Ladies’ Betterment League
To be, for wet eyes, random and handy hem.
In lines 1-21 of ‘The Lovers of the Poor,’ Gwendolyn Brooks introduces the Ladies from the Ladies’ Betterment League, a group of affluent women who arrive in the poverty-stricken neighborhood. Through vivid imagery and clever word choices, Brooks conveys a powerful message about the Ladies’ condescending attitude and the disparity between their privileged world and the harsh reality of the poor.
The poem begins with the word “arrive,” immediately drawing attention to the Ladies’ presence and their intrusion into a different environment. The use of the word “Betterment” in the name of their league implies a sense of superiority, suggesting that they believe they are there to improve the lives of the poor.
The “late light slanting in diluted gold bars” depicts their luxurious lives as they walk along the boulevard. The imagery of “proud, seamed faces with mercy and murder hinting” hints at the conflicting emotions within the Ladies, portraying their patronizing behavior towards the poor but also their underlying potential for cruelty.
The phrase “pink paint on the innocence of fear” encapsulates the Ladies’ attempt to mask their discomfort and guilt with an appearance of compassion. Brooks uses the color pink to symbolize a superficial and false sense of care, contrasting it with the “innocence of fear” experienced by the poor.
The Ladies are described as “deep and debonair,” which hints at their sophistication and elegance. However, this description is juxtaposed with the harsh reality of their actions, portrayed through the metaphor of “Cutting with knives served by their softest care.” Brooks critiques the Ladies’ performative charity, suggesting their efforts may cause more harm than good.
The lines “Served by their love, so barbarously fair” further emphasize the contradictory nature of the Ladies’ actions. Their supposed love and compassion are paradoxically juxtaposed with their harmful impact on the lives of the poor.
Brooks refers to the Ladies’ upbringing, where their mothers taught them not to be cruel and not to harm innocent creatures like wrens. This highlights the Ladies’ privileged background and upbringing, suggesting that their intentions might be well-meaning, but their understanding of poverty is limited and superficial.
This first twenty one lines sets the tone for the entire poem, highlighting the theme of social disparity and the patronizing attitudes of the affluent toward the poor. Through vivid imagery, metaphors, and clever word choices, Gwendolyn Brooks conveys a powerful message about the complexities of charity and the need for genuine empathy and understanding when engaging with social issues.
Their guild is giving money to the poor.
Nonetheless for being voiceless, hits one down.
In these lines, Gwendolyn Brooks continues to explore the theme of class disparity and the superficiality of the Ladies’ charity efforts. Through her pointed language and use of adjectives, Brooks exposes the Ladies’ biased and condescending attitudes toward the poor.
The lines open with a simple yet significant statement: “Their guild is giving money to the poor.” Brooks refers to the Ladies’ organization as a “guild,” highlighting its exclusive and privileged nature. Giving money to the poor suggests an attempt at charity, but as the lines unfolds, it becomes clear that the Ladies’ intentions are not entirely altruistic.
The repetition of the phrase “The worthy poor. The very very worthy” underscores the Ladies’ selective approach to charity. They seem to determine the deservingness of the poor based on subjective criteria, such as beauty and appearance. The Ladies’ prejudice is further evident in their preference for those “just not too swarthy” or “dirty nor too dim.” This reveals their bias towards individuals who align with their idealized image of poverty and respectability.
Brooks uses a series of negative descriptions, such as “derelict,” “dull,” and “not staunch enough to stab,” to emphasize the Ladies’ aversion to engaging with poverty in its raw and unfiltered form. They seek individuals who won’t challenge or confront them, reflecting their desire to maintain a comfortable distance from the true struggles of the poor.
The phrase “God shield them sharply from the beggar-bold!” reveals the Ladies’ fear of encountering individuals who might demand more from them, emotionally or financially. Their concern for the “noxious needy ones whose battle’s bald” suggests a reluctance to confront the harsh realities of poverty and the potential discomfort it may bring.
In the last lines, Brooks emphasizes the plight of those who are voiceless and powerless, highlighting the inequality faced by the poor in society. The “voiceless” poor struggle to be heard, and their battles often go unnoticed or ignored.
Essentially, these lines expose the Ladies’ superficial and prejudiced approach to charity. Brooks’ use of descriptive language and repetition reinforces the message that their efforts are driven by their own comfort and a desire to avoid engaging with the harsh realities of poverty. The lines serve as powerful critiques of performative charity and highlights the need for genuine empathy and understanding when addressing issues of social inequality.
But it’s all so bad! and entirely too much for them.
Patience of the poor and put-upon.
In these lines, the poet continues her scathing critique of the Ladies from the Ladies’ Betterment League, delving deeper into their discomfort and aversion towards the poverty-stricken neighborhood. Through evocative imagery and contrasting language, Brooks conveys the stark contrast between the Ladies’ privileged world and the harsh reality of the slum.
The lines open with an exclamation of their overwhelmed state: “But it’s all so bad! and entirely too much for them.” Here, Brooks highlights the Ladies’ inability to cope with poverty’s overwhelming and distressing sights and smells. Their discomfort reinforces their detachment from the experiences of the poor.
The poet employs a list of sensory details to create a vivid picture of the impoverished environment. The “stench,” “urine,” “cabbage,” and “dead beans” reflect the unsanitary conditions of the slum. The mention of “dead porridges of assorted dusty grains” further accentuates the hopelessness and deprivation the poor face.
The Ladies’ unease with unfamiliar food is evident when they encounter “something called chitterlings,” a type of soul food. Brooks uses this mention to underscore their unfamiliarity with the cuisine of the poor, emphasizing their lack of understanding and connection.
The repeated use of the word “old” throughout these lines contrasts the decaying state of the slum with the polished and pristine surroundings of places like Lake Forest and Glencoe. The Ladies’ preference for the “homekind Oldness” of affluent areas further accentuates their disdain for the slum’s general oldness.
The final lines condemn the Ladies’ detachment and privilege. Brooks juxtaposes the absence of “sturdy,” “majestic,” “quiet drama,” and “rubbed glaze” in the slum with the tasteful elegance they enjoyed in affluent areas. The use of “unkillable infirmity” to describe the social issues faced by the poor further emphasizes their struggle and vulnerability.
The Ladies’ ultimate goal, as suggested in these lines, is to return to their privileged world once they are done with their charity efforts. Brooks characterizes their interactions with the poor as dealing with “dullards and distortions,” implying that their attempts at charity are mere token gestures rather than genuine engagement.
The message passed in the lines serves as a scathing critique of the Ladies’ discomfort, detachment, and superficiality in their efforts to engage with the poverty-stricken neighborhood. Through vivid imagery and contrasting language, Gwendolyn Brooks highlights the stark contrast between the Ladies’ privileged lives and the harsh realities the poor face. The lines reinforce the poem’s overarching message about the need for genuine empathy and understanding when addressing issues of social inequality.
They’ve never seen such a make-do-ness as
Eyed kitten, hunched-up, haggard, to-be-hurt.
In these lines, Gwendolyn Brooks vividly depicts the Ladies’ encounter with the poverty-stricken household. Through powerful imagery and contrasting emotions, Brooks highlights the stark realities faced by the poor and the Ladies’ discomfort and horror at the scene before them.
The lines begin with the Ladies’ amazement at the “make-do-ness” of the newspaper rugs in the flat. The use of this term conveys the resourcefulness and resilience of the poor in making the best of their limited means. The Ladies’ surprise indicates their lack of exposure to such hardships.
The phrase “Their hostess is gathering up the oozed, the rich” presents a stark contrast between the hostess’s impoverished circumstances and the Ladies’ privileged background. The use of “oozed” and “bespattered” to describe the morning rugs reveals the squalor and lack of material wealth.
Brooks uses contrasting actions to show the hostess’s efforts to maintain cleanliness and dignity despite her difficult living conditions. She “readies to spread clean rugs for afternoon,” signifying her determination to maintain a sense of order and cleanliness in her home.
The poet then invites readers to witness the Ladies’ reaction to the scene. The phrase “Here is a scene for you” implies a sense of spectacle, suggesting that the Ladies view the household and its inhabitants as a curiosity rather than individuals needing genuine help.
The Ladies’ horror is emphasized as they look at the substantial citizeness, a woman representing the impoverished class. Her “trains clank out across her swollen heart” conveys a sense of burden and struggle, highlighting the weight of poverty on her shoulders.
The description of “all tumbling children, quilts dragged to the floor” further illustrates the poor’s chaotic and overcrowded living conditions. The presence of “potato peelings” and a “soft-eyed kitten” adds to the household’s sense of deprivation and struggle.
The use of “hunched-up, haggard, to-be-hurt” evokes empathy for the poor, showing that they endure both physical and emotional suffering. The juxtaposition of this suffering with the Ladies’ privileged lives highlights the stark contrast in their experiences.
These lines are a powerful portrayal of the stark realities faced by the poverty-stricken household and the Ladies’ discomfort and horror at the scene. It reinforces the poem’s overarching message about the superficiality of charity efforts and the importance of genuine engagement with impoverished communities.
Their League is allotting largesse to the Lost.
Tipped with their hundred flawless rose-nails seems . . .
In lines 62-65, Gwendolyn Brooks delves into the theme of charity and the superficiality of the Ladies’ efforts to assist the poor. Through powerful imagery and metaphorical language, Brooks criticizes the Ladies’ condescending attitude and highlights the insincerity of their charity.
The lines open with a description of the Ladies’ League, which is “allotting largesse to the Lost.” The term “largesse” suggests the act of giving generously or as an act of charity. However, the use of “Lost” to describe the recipients of their charity carries a tone of condescension, as if the Ladies view the poor as aimless and directionless individuals.
Brooks employs a series of caesuras with the ellipsis (“…”) at the end of the stanza, creating a pause that adds emphasis and invites readers to reflect on the Ladies’ motivations. The poet uses this technique to heighten the impact of her message and draw attention to the contradiction within the Ladies’ actions.
The poet uses metaphorical language to critique the Ladies’ approach to charity. Their money is described as “clean” and “pretty,” with the imagery of “delicate rose-fingers” and “hundred flawless rose-nails.” These phrases emphasize the Ladies’ privileged and pampered existence, in contrast to the hardships faced by the poor.
The use of “delicate rose-fingers” and “flawless rose-nails” also hints at the fragility and artificiality of their charity efforts. It suggests that their aid is cosmetic and does not address the underlying systemic issues that perpetuate poverty.
Brooks leaves the sentence unfinished with “seems . . .,” deliberately leaving the reader hanging and open to interpretation. This technique leaves a sense of ambiguity, allowing readers to question the authenticity of the Ladies’ charity and ponder the deeper implications of their actions.
These lines serve as a powerful critique of the Ladies’ charity efforts and their condescending attitude toward the poor. It reinforces the poem’s overarching message about the complexities of charity and the need for genuine empathy and understanding when engaging with social issues.
They own Spode, Lowestoft, candelabra,
Where loathe-love likelier may be invested.
In lines 66-93 of ‘The Lovers of the Poor,’ Gwendolyn Brooks continues her scathing critique of the Ladies from the Ladies’ Betterment League and their shallow engagement with poverty. Through contrasting imagery and powerful language, Brooks exposes the stark contrast between the Ladies’ luxurious lifestyle and the deplorable conditions of the slum.
The lines open with a list of the Ladies’ possessions and activities, which are emblematic of their wealth and privilege. The use of names such as “Spode, Lowestoft, candelabra,” and “Chippendale” reflects their extravagant taste in expensive items and high-end furnishings. The description of their wintering in Palm Beach and crossing the water in June suggests their lavish lifestyle and leisurely activities.
The mention of attending the “nice Art Institute” and buying books in the “best bindings” further emphasizes the Ladies’ cultural and intellectual pursuits, indicative of their education and refinement. Brooks presents a stark contrast between their privileged lives and the poverty-stricken surroundings they encounter.
The phrase “Oh Squalor!” stands out in sharp contrast to the opulence listed earlier, creating a jarring effect. Brooks shifts the focus to the “sick four-story hulk,” emphasizing the dilapidated and deteriorating state of the slum. The use of “fibre with fissures everywhere” symbolizes the crumbling and broken state of the impoverished neighborhood.
Brooks then contrasts the Ladies’ “loathe-love largesse” with the harsh realities faced by the poor. The Ladies’ superficial and patronizing aid, represented by “tin can, blocked fire escape, and chitterling,” pales in comparison to the genuine struggles of the impoverished, which include “the middle passage” and “urine and stale shames.”
The repetition of “children children children” further emphasizes the vulnerability and suffering of the young ones living in poverty. The mention of a rat in the shadows creates an unsettling and uncomfortable atmosphere, highlighting the unsanitary conditions endured by the poor.
In the closing lines, Brooks describes the Ladies’ realization that it would be better to escape the discomfort and return to their privileged world. The phrase “achieve the outer air that rights and steadies” suggests a desire to escape the suffocating environment of poverty and return to their familiar and comfortable lives.
The Ladies’ contemplation of posting the money and choosing another slum exposes their lack of genuine commitment to making a meaningful impact. Brooks implies that their charity efforts are merely token gestures, lacking the depth and sincerity needed to address the systemic issues of poverty.
The lines serve to condemn the Ladies’ shallow engagement with poverty and their preference for comfort and convenience. Through contrasting imagery and powerful language, Gwendolyn Brooks highlights the stark contrast between the Ladies’ privileged lives and the harsh realities faced by the poor. The lines reinforces the poem’s overarching message about the need for genuine empathy and understanding when addressing issues of social inequality.
Keeping their scented bodies in the center
Try to avoid inhaling the laden air.
In these final lines, Gwendolyn Brooks brings the poem to a powerful conclusion, reinforcing the poem’s overarching message about the insincerity and detachment of the Ladies from the Ladies’ Betterment League in their engagement with poverty. Through vivid imagery and metaphorical language, Brooks exposes the Ladies’ efforts to maintain their privileged status and distance themselves from the harsh realities of the impoverished neighborhood.
The lines begin with the Ladies keeping “their scented bodies in the center of the hall.” This description emphasizes their self-importance and desire to remain at the forefront, while also distancing themselves from their poverty-stricken surroundings. The repetition of the word “hall” further accentuates their detachment from the environment and the stark contrast between their refined appearance and the squalor around them.
The line “They allow their lovely skirts to graze no wall” suggests the Ladies’ reluctance to touch or come into contact with anything in the impoverished setting. This conveys their discomfort and desire to maintain a sense of cleanliness and elegance, highlighting their unwillingness to truly engage with the harsh reality of poverty.
The phrase “off at what they manage of a canter” portrays the Ladies’ attempt to quickly distance themselves from the environment, as if they are eager to escape from the discomfort they feel. The use of the word “manage” implies that their efforts to canter away are half-hearted and superficial.
Brooks employs metaphorical language to describe the Ladies “resuming all the clues of what they were.” This implies that they are reverting to their usual behaviors and mannerisms, discarding any pretense of empathy or engagement with the poor.
The final line, “Try to avoid inhaling the laden air,” captures the essence of the Ladies’ detachment and reluctance to confront the harsh realities of the impoverished neighborhood. The word “laden” suggests a heavy burden, symbolizing the overwhelming and uncomfortable nature of the poverty-stricken surroundings. The Ladies’ attempt to avoid inhaling this air is a metaphorical representation of their desire to avoid confronting the true challenges faced by the poor.
These final lines serve as a powerful denouement to the poem’s critique of the Ladies from the Ladies’ Betterment League. Through vivid imagery and metaphorical language, Gwendolyn Brooks exposes the Ladies’ insincerity and detachment in their charity efforts. The lines reinforce the poem’s overarching message about the complexities of charity, the importance of genuine empathy, and the need to confront the harsh realities of poverty to bring about meaningful change.
The mood is a mixture of irony, social commentary, and unease. Gwendolyn Brooks exposes the stark contrast between the Ladies’ privileged lives and the harsh realities faced by the poor, leaving readers with a critical and reflective impression.
The poem triggers feelings of indignation, empathy for the poor, and a sense of discomfort at the Ladies’ insincerity and detachment from the harsh realities of poverty.
The poem is titled ‘The Lovers of the Poor’ because it sarcastically refers to the Ladies from the Ladies’ Betterment League as “lovers” of the poor, highlighting their patronizing and condescending attitude towards the impoverished community.
Those who enjoyed this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks may also wish to explore these others:
- ‘At a Potato Digging’ written by Seamus Heaney – consists of four sections that depict men’s relationship with the land.
- ‘America’ by Allen Ginsberg deals with the turbulent times in America. It was written during and focused on the period after the Second World War.
- ‘Baudelaire’ by Delmore Schwartz is an emotional depiction of a poet’s desperation caused by poverty and the vicious cycle of hopelessness.