The hardships of a woman whose beloved has left her for joining the war gets featured in ‘the sonnet-ballad’. It is not a story of a single woman, but all. During World War II, several families, mostly women, lost their children or husbands in the war. The hegemony of war grips those families so hard that living seems a burden for them. However, the death of a lover does not pain a lady so deeply if he died of a natural ailment. If he dies for something for which he is not responsible at all, pains his beloved so deep that it becomes hard for her to accept the reality. This poem presents such a speaker’s pain and lamentation.
This sonnet is about a woman’s lament. Her beloved has left to join a war. However, she is not proud of the incident at all. Rather she thinks her husband can die on the battlefield. Moreover, she knows one day the war is going to end. But, she is not sure about the return of her husband. As “Coquettish death” makes a soldier so hallucinated that life loses its value in his eyes. At last, the speaker asks her mother, “where is happiness?” As she knows, her life was doomed on that day when her husband left.
You can read the full poem here.
The title of the poem ‘the sonnet-ballad’ does not provide a direct key to the subject matter. Hence, one has to go through the poem first. Thereafter the meaning of the title as well as the poem will become clear. However, the title gives an idea that this poem is not about a single woman who has lost her loved ones in war. Rather, this poem voices the pangs of women whose husbands have died on the battlefield. Hence, the poet uses the word “ballad” in the title. Moreover, the meaning of the poem is simple enough to decode. This poem is a lamentation of a woman whose husband has joined the war.
Brooks wrote this poem using the English sonnet or Shakespearean sonnet form. There are a total of three quatrains and an ending couplet in this poem. Moreover, the rhyme scheme of the overall poem is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. However, the couplet ends with a similar sound that is present at the end of the first line. Like conventional sonnets, this poem is also composed in iambic pentameter. It means in each line of the poem there are five iambic feet or five iambs. Apart from that, this is a lyric poem too.
‘the sonnet-ballad’ showcases several literary devices that make the speaker’s heartfelt lamentation more appealing to the readers. The first literary device used by Brooks is the rhetorical question or interrogation. It is present in the first line. The line also contains a palilogy. In the second line, there is a synecdoche in the usage of the word “tallness”. Thereafter, the poet uses a metaphor in the phrase, “empty heart-cup” for making a comparison between the speaker’s heart and an empty cup. Apart from that, the line, “That my sweet love would have to be untrue” contains irony and an epigram as well. In the following line, the poet uses personification. The poem ends with a refrain of the first line.
Brooks showcases several themes in this poem. Some important themes of the poem are death, horrors of war, mental agony, depression, nationalism, and love. After reading the poem for the first time, one can find that the theme of death hovers throughout the poem. Thereafter the theme of horrors of war gets reflected in the lines such as, “They took my lover’s tallness off to war” and “Some day the war will end, but oh, I knew …” Apart from that, the theme of love is another important theme of this work. The emotion of love makes the speaker feel that without her beloved there is no happiness in her life.
Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?
What I can use an empty heart-cup for.
The poem, ‘the sonnet-ballad’ begins with an interrogation. The speaker of the poem asks her mother where the source of happiness in her life has gone. As her beloved has left for the war due to his tallness (a prerequisite for joining military service). It left the speaker lamenting. At this critical juncture, she cannot decide how she can use her “empty heart-cup”. Through this metaphor, the speaker compares her heart to a cup, and the husband’s love always kept the cup filled. For his absence, now her “heart-cup” empty of love.
He won’t be coming back here any more.
That my sweet love would have to be untrue.
In this quatrain, she presents a harsh truth. Since her husband is at war, there is no possibility of his return. Moreover, she remarks that someday the war will end. But, it does not ensure her husband’s return. Therefore, she recalls how he left. She says, “When he went walking gradually out that door”, on that day, she mentally prepared herself for the harrowing future. According to the speaker, her “sweet love” would have to be untrue. If her love was true, he could not help but stay with her.
Would have to be untrue. Would have to court
Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?
This section begins with the repetition of the phrase, “Would have to be untrue.” She uses this phrase for emphasizing her sadness. However, the following line reflects her mental preparedness for the sad event that is going to happen in the future. Here, the poet personifies death as a “Coquettish” lady. That lady is impudent and strange as she has no respect for someone’s emotion (here the lady’s feelings). Thereafter, the speaker says death’s “Possessive arms and beauty (of a sort)/ Can make a hard man hesitate—and change.”
When a person leaves for war, his heart gets hardened and he loses touch with the basic foundations of life, kindness, and compassion. Whatsoever, in the couplet, the speaker remarks that her husband will give in to death’s courting and accept her proposal. For this reason, she is heartbroken and sadly reiterates the question, “Oh mother, mother, where is happiness?”
‘the sonnet-ballad’ by Gwendolyn Brooks appears in “Appendix to The Anniad: leaves from a loose-leaf war diary” present in her book of poetry, ‘Annie Allen’. It is her second book of poetry, published in 1949. In this work, she focuses on the life and experiences of a young Black girl growing into womanhood in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. Moreover, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on May 1, 1950, for this work, making her the first African-American Pulitzer awardee. Alongside that, she was one of the best African-American poets. However, this poem concerns Annie’s lover who goes to war and comes back home to die.
The following poems are similar to the heart-touching themes present in Brooks’ ‘the sonnet-ballad’.
- The Next War by Wilfred Owen – In this dark and cynical poem, the poet presents the themes of horrors of war and the loss of lives.
- Song-Books of the War by Siegfried Sassoon – The poet details the truth in the voice of a man speaking plainly about the truth of the war in this poem.
- We Are At War by Gcina Mhlope – This poem contains a rallying cry for women to stand up and proclaim their rights.
- John Brown by Bob Dylan – This poem centers on the conversation between a soldier-son and his mother.
You can also read about 10 of the Best War Poems and 10 of the Best British Wartime Poets.