The Old Marrieds illustrates the eroding relationship of a married couple. Their unhappiness is contrasted against the strikingly bright backdrop of a bustling Chicago in spring. The piece illustrates some of the common traits that are often associated with the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, who was known for focusing on African-Americans and their communities throughout her writing.
To begin, I will analyze each part of The Old Marrieds. Then, I will comment on the structure of the piece. Finally, I will make note of the poem’s contextual history.
The Old Marrieds Analysis
But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say
Though the pretty-coated birds had piped so lightly all the day.
The first line of The Old Marrieds conjures a specific image. The reader can immediately picture the “old marrieds” laying awake and not speaking. The pair lay in “the crowding darkness,” which provokes a feeling of claustrophobia in the reader. The silence, the not saying a word is also unnerving. Sitting alone and reading, someone might feel the feeling of an awkward silence creeping over them. Overall, the first line creates an image builds expectations in the reader, the imagination immediately moving to fill in the blanks.
The second line of The Old Marrieds offers a bit of contrast. The gloom of a dark room is replaced with brightly colored birds singing in the light of a spring day. This stark contrast in tone can be traced to specific images: “crowding darkness” contrasted with the birds chirping “lightly all the day.” In addition to that, the muffling silence of line one is replaced in the second line with happy sounds of birds.
And he had seen the lovers in the little side-streets
And she had heard the morning stories clogged with sweets.
The “old marrieds” begin to take shape in the reader’s mind after these lines. The silent people in the dark are pulled into the light, revealing a man and woman The most striking thing in my opinion though, is that the man and woman are referenced in separate lines, depicted doing different things. The man sees “the lovers in the little side streets.” The woman had watched soap operas stuffed with sentimentality or “clogged with sweets.”
Not only does Brooks show that the two people are divided on almost every level, but the reader also learns that husband and wife do not even want the same thing. The man seems to envy the young lovers in the streets, weather these are wistful, nostalgic feelings or lust filled desires is unclear. The author chose this image to associate with the man, but his partner also seems to be drawn to a romantic relationship of some kind.
Her attention is turned to the world of fiction. She, after watching her “morning stories,” must have in some way reacted to the romantic intrigues of the fictional characters. Perhaps they caused her to feel nostalgic, or perhaps they filled her with envy or regret.
Whatever their reactions, woman and man both see other people, living other lives. She appears to relate to the dramatic and passionate lives of characters on day-time TV, and it seems that he has some sort of fixation with youth and sexuality. They are almost voyeuristic, looking into the lives of others.
It was quite a time for loving. It was midnight. It was May.
But in the crowding darkness not a word did they say.
The first line of this last couplet, again offers a bit of contrast. Like the second it is filled with, if not happy, then pleasant images. Almost matter of factly, the poet describes a night where romance could easily blossom. Late on a warm May night is indeed a great “time for loving.”
The final line of the piece, a repetition of the line that the poem began with, brings the “old marrieds” and the reader back into darkness. The piece begins and ends in “the crowding darkness.” The other lines, the old married couple themselves, are encircled by it, trapped by it. It draws to mind the image of cage, built of silence and darkness, around the two people.
The Old Marrieds begins with the word “but” which seems to imply that the speaker is beginning mid sentence. This, when considered along with the line being repeated at the opening and close of the piece make it seem like a continuous cycle. The endless march of longing filled days followed by silent, claustrophobic nights. The “old marrieds” are left to trudge forever through their days, a yawning unspoken distance between, even as they lay awake next to each other.
The Old Marrieds Structure
This poem, as mentioned above, displays a couple of characteristics common in the works of Gwendolyn Brooks. First, the rhyme, the alternating couplets hint at the lyrical nature of her poetry. The rhyme pattern is aa/bb/aa, occurring in the last word of each line. Pay special attention to the poet’s use of hyphenated words such as “side-streets” and “pretty-coated birds” as the poet uses it in other works.
Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African-American poet laureate of the United States and served in that station from 1985-1986 (although at that point it was still known as “consultant in poetry”). Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her second book of poetry, titled “Annie Allen.”
The Old Marrieds appeared in the poet’s first book of poetry “A Street in Bronzeville.” The collection earned her immediate notoriety and critical acclaim. The other poems, like The Old Marrieds focuses on the everyday life of typically poor, African-Americans in Bronzevile (a neighborhood in the area of Douglas, Chicago).
The poet went on to publish several more volumes, and taught extensively throughout the United States. She passed on 3 December, 2000.