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In his poem titled “Bad Man,” Langston Hughes uses a number of literary devices to help contribute to the effectiveness of the poem. Among these devices are the following:
- Simple, colloquial language. The poem is easily accessible and its phrasing is easy to understand.
- Repetition for emphasis, as in the repeated word “bad” in line 1 and the repeated phrase “I’m a bad, bad man” in lines 1 and 3.
- Dialect, as in such words as “Everbody” (4) and “heaben” (18). Such phrasing helps make the poem sound authentic and also helps it to suggest that the speaker is an African American of a lower social class. These words, then, help specify the circumstances of the speaker and may help to explain why he characterizes himself as he does.
- Movement from general to specific. In the first stanza, the speaker announces merely that he is a “bad man” but doesn’t say how. In the second stanza, however, he gives particular examples of his badness:
I beats ma’ wife, an’
I beats ma side gal too. (7-8)
- Possible irony. In the first stanza, the speaker says that he is bad simply “Cause everbody tells me so” (2). This phrasing may suggest that the speaker doesn’t actually believe that he is genuinely bad. However, in the second stanza, he ironically offers particular examples of his badness (adultery and physical abuse).
- Emphatic stress on verbs, as in the repeated and metrically emphasized word “beats” in stanza 2.
- Ambiguity, as in the speaker’s statement in line 2 that he doesn’t know why he beats his wife and his mistress.
- Paradox, as in his claim in stanza three that he doesn’t even want to be good; this makes the poem more intriguing and mysterious.
- A somewhat shocking climax, as in the claim (in the final two lines) that not only is the speaker going to be a “devil” but that he wouldn’t go to heaven if he could. This is another example of paradox, and it also adds to the intrigue and mystery of the poem.
- Lack of comment by any voice other than the speaker’s. A different kind of poet might have made the speaker more self-pitying; instead, Hughes makes the speaker defiant and unapologetic. Likewise, a different kind of poet might have used the speaker’s words as an opportunity to offer moralistic commentary. However, Hughes refrains from indulging in such moralizing, letting the speaker speak for himself and letting readers draw their own conclusions about him.
- Rhythm, language, and repetition that link the poem to the “blues” tradition in music.
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