‘To Be in Love’ by Gwendolyn Brooks is a thirty-two line poem which is contained within one solid block of text. This allows Brook’s speaker’s words to flow into one another, creating a continuous description of what love is. The good times and the bad are combined into one larger, universal experience.
Brooks chose to vary the length of the lines to a great extent in this text. The shortest is only two words and the longest up to eight. One should take note of the importance the title line plays in the text as well. The phrase, “To be in love” appears as the first line of the poem and then is not repeated again. Every complicated emotion and good and bad experience comes from this simple statement.
Summary of To Be in Love
The poem begins with the speaker outlining a number of facts about love and what occurs around the emotion. There are not any details regarding who the listener of this piece is, but one can assume it is someone who is about to be or has just started falling in love. The speaker is giving advice to this person in the form of summarizing what love is really like.
She states that “you” will begin to see through his eyes and feel what he feels even when “you” are separated. The feelings will be so intense “you” cannot even look into his eyes or comprehend moments when the door is “shut.”
The poem concludes with the speaker describing the difficult process of coming to terms with what being in love is like. She speaks from experience about how the “Column of Gold” that initially represents a relationship might become “the commonest ash.” This occurs when problems become more universally understood.
You can read the full poem To Be in Love here.
Analysis of To Be in Love
To be in love
Is to touch with a lighter hand.
In yourself you stretch, you are well.
You look at things
Through his eyes.
A cardinal is red.
A sky is blue.
In the first set of lines, the speaker begins by introducing the topic on which she will be musing. As the title states that text will focus on what it means to be “in love.” There is not an easy answer to the question of what love is like. The speaker’s descriptions are sometimes ephemeral and other times more exacting.
The first thing that she brings up is the fact that love causes one’s state of being to shift. If “you” fall in love then every interaction “you” have with the world will become lighter. The care with which one moves, “stretche[es]” and feels will be gentler.
In the third line, it is revealed the speaker does have a specific listener in mind. This person is in love, or about to fall in love. Aside from this fact there are no further details given as to whom the speaker is addressing her words. It is clear though that she intends to give the listener advice about what is in their future.
The speaker continues on to state that one’s perspective will change as well. Their eyes will become more like their lover’s. One will see as “he” does and the sky all be “blue” and the “cardinal…red.” The world is taken back to its basic, most vibrant elements.
Suddenly you know he knows too.
He is not there but
His hand to take your hand is overmuch.
Too much to bear.
In the next set of lines the speaker goes on to describe how if the love is real all the previously mentioned experiences will be shared on his side. The man will know that you “know” him. There will develop a connection between the listener and the man that spans distances. It will mean they are connected through their senses and everyday lives.
She uses the example of “tasting” to show that no matter if,
He is not there but
You know you are tasting together
The same goes for the experience of the seasons. They will share in their physical senses and emotions even if they are separated by a great distance. In the next lines, the speaker tells the listener that eventually, as the relationship progresses and “you” are holding hands with “him” it will be “Too much to bear.” The emotions will be overwhelming as they come from both the listener’s side and from this person’s lover. These lines speak simply and poignantly about the early stages of love. Due to their simplicity, they should be relatable to many different readers.
You cannot look in his eyes
Because your pulse must not say
Is not there_
Your arms are water.
Throughout the next lines, the speaker expands on the emotions that will surely be controlling the listener. One’s inability to control their own body goes so far as to keep them from looking “in his eyes.” The listener will know that their “pulse” will give away “What must not be said.” Although it is not stated explicitly this is a reference to the listener’s depth of love. The speaker understands that one will not be sure if they should share the truth of their emotions at the beginning. One’s pulse, speeding up inexplicably when looking into another’s eyes, would give it away.
In the final four lines of this section, the speaker says that there will be moments that are not as uplifting. The emotions are just as strong when the man is not there. A perfect example of this is,
Shuts a door-
Is not there__
Here, the speaker is likely referring to a time in which he does not literally shut a physical door but shuts the listener out of some part of his mind or life. These moments are brief, especially at the beginning of the relationship but they will make the listener’s arms like “water.” It takes the strength from one’s life and leaves them unsure of what to do next.
And you are free
With a ghastly freedom.
You remember and covet his mouth
To touch, to whisper on.
The next lines move back to the positive side of the relationship. Here, the listener is “free” with a “ghastly freedom.” There are equal parts beauty and horror to what one embarks on in a relationship. One will become part of,
[…]the beautiful half
Of a golden hurt.
These lines speaker perfectly about the pain that accompanies the great happiness love can bring. The emotion is deep and so valuable it is like a “golden hurt” within one’s body. In the next two lines, the speaker mentions the man’s “mouth” which the listener will come to “covert,” or desire greedily. The speaker seems to be speaking from a generally positive experience of the same emotions.
Oh when to declare
Is certain Death!
To see fall down, the Column of Gold,
Into the commonest ash.
The final lines of this piece are less physical and more ephemeral in their depiction of what love can be. These lines do relate back to the most intimate and physical moments mentioned previously. Here, the speaker seems to express exasperation over “when to declare.” This consideration is to her like “certain Death.” Although it is not entirely clear, likely she is again speaking to one’s decision to admit one’s love to another. It is “Death” in that it’s mental torment.
The following lines speak on the same theme and one’s general fear of getting hurt. The poem concludes with the speaker stating that eventually, the “Column of Gold” that represented the relationship will become “the commonest ash.” This occurs when one realizes the universal nature of their emotions. The passions and torments they are experiencing are not uncommon.