‘Beale Street Love’ was published in 1926. It is set, rhythmically and contextually, in Memphis, Tennessee, the home of blues music. It is with this in mind that Hughes crated this short seven-line poem with punchy, enjambed lines that mimic the pounding rhythm of the blues.
In this poem, Hughes explores the dynamics of race and love. These two things come together, along with gender and power, to create the metaphorical landscape of a relationship. There are parts of this poem that are strikingly clear, such as the descriptions of violence, but the conclusion and the overall metaphor require the reader to make some educated guesses about what Hughes was getting at.
Explore Beale Street Love
Summary of Beale Street Love
The poem presumably takes place on Beale Street in Tennessee. There, love is painful and perhaps even dangerous. The speaker describes love, through an extended metaphor, as a “brown fist” that’s purpling a woman’s lips and eyes. It concludes with the woman who is abused (metaphorically or physically) asking to be hit again.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in Beale Street Love
In ‘Beale Street Love’ Hughes engages with themes of love, violence, and race. These broad and important themes are seen through the allusion to Black culture in the title, the references to violence acted out in the name of love, and to the entire dynamic that exists between the “brown fist” and Clorinda. Readers are left with many questions at the end of this poem as to what the true nature of the relationship is. Is violence only a metaphor for the pain of love? Or is there really abuse occurring? If either of these is true, what does that say about love?
Structure and Form of Beale Street Love
‘Beale Street Love’ by Langston Hughes is a short seven-line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. Hughes chose not to use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern in ‘Beale Street Love’. Despite this fact, the lines are incredibly impactful and strikingly memorable. Hughes uses a lyrical style of writing, without a single, clear speaker, in order to create this descriptive poem.
Literary Devices in Beale Street Love
Hughes makes use of several literary devices in ‘Beale Street Love’. These include but are not limited to examples of metaphors, allusions, and enjambment. The latter, enjambment, is a formal technique that’s seen in the transition between lines. For example, that which exists between lines one and two.
There is a good allusion in the last line of the poem with the use of the name “Clorinda”. This is very unusual name, on that, might’ve come from an Italian poem called Jerusalem Delivered by the poet Tasso. In it, Clorinda is a white woman who is born to Black, African parents. As the poem progresses, the woman is killed in battle by her lover. The connections that can be drawn between the two poems are obvious.
The entire poem reads like an extended metaphor. Although it’s easy to forget, from the first line Hughes tells the reader that “Love” is a “brown man’s fist”. Love is described in the following lines in increasingly violent language.
Analysis of Beale Street Love
Crushing the lips
The poem starts out with its shortest line. Hughes begins with the word “Love” alone in the first line in order to give the reader time to contemplate it before making the description much more complicated. A reader might briefly consider what they think of when they think of love and what it means. It’s very likely not what Hughes follows up with.
In the second line, the poet creates a metaphor that compares “Love” to a “brown man’s fist / With hard knuckles”. This relates back up to the title, Beale Street, which also serves as the perceived setting. At the time at which Hughes was writing Beale Street was a hub of African-American homes and culture. The fist likely belongs to a Black man who lives there. The introduction of violence in this second, third, and fourth lines of the poem provides the reader with a wonderful example of juxtaposition.
It’s important to Hughes in the second line to emphasize the word “hard” when describing the fist, even though that should be obvious that a fist would have hard knuckles. The metaphor grows from line to line, turning into an extended metaphor.
The fourth line of ‘Beale Street Love’ provides the reader with some action. The fist is crushing “the lips” of someone, or a group of people, that are not defined (not until the last line of the poem that is). The word “crush” indicates that the fist belongs to someone with a great deal of power. It is juxtaposed with the word “lips,” a feature that is tender, and very much the opposite of hard knuckles.
Blackening the eyes, —
In the fifth line of ‘Beale Street Love,’ the poet adds in more detail about what the fist is doing or has done. It is also “Blackening the eyes”. It’s very clear at this point that someone is on the receiving end of several blows, ones which are doing a great deal of damage.
In the last two lines of the poem, Hughes gives the reader a line of dialogue as well as a description of who spoke it. Clorinda, presumably a woman, says “Hit me again”. She is directing her words towards the fist, which is still being used as a metaphor for love. She’s asking to be hit again by the fist/ by love. There are a couple of different ways one could interpret this, the first being that she is asking for more love, or a continuation of their love, even if it hurts. Less likely is the possibility that she really does want to be hit.
When considering all the elements of this short poem together, as well as the title, a reader can determine that love, on Beale Street, is like a brown man’s powerful fist hitting the face of a woman who demands more. This is a very dark image, one that is necessarily troubling. Hughes leaves the reader wondering if the entire poem is metaphorical or if he truly was describing domestic abuse.
Langston Hughes is remembered for writing about the Black experience, and engaging with the themes of the Civil Rights Movement long before it was in the mainstream. He sought, throughout his works, to promote and celebrate Black culture and Black lives. This was done in an effort to expose people of other races to a way of life they might not be familiar with, might degrade, or might even just ignore as well as to allow Black men and women permission to love themselves and their culture. Other poems of interest include ‘The Weary Blues’, ‘A Dream Deferred,’ and ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers,’ all by Langston Hughes. Readers might also be interested in ‘The Women Gather’ by Nikki Giovanni and ‘Power’ by Audre Lorde.