The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Dream Variations” (originally “Dream Variation”) consists of two stanzas, the first of nine lines, the second of eight. Its title connects it with one of Langston Hughes’s major themes: dreams, especially the dreams of African Americans.
The variations referred to in the title are those that the second stanza introduces: The first eight lines of stanza 1 correspond closely, line by line, with the eight lines of stanza 2. The first lines of the two stanzas are in fact identical, but thereafter stanza 2 varies from stanza 1, sometimes by the change of but a word, sometimes by more pronounced changes. The most dramatic variation is in line 3: “To whirl and to dance” becomes “Dance! Whirl! Whirl!”
The poem is written in the first person, so it is tempting to associate the speaker with the poet himself. Yet the speaker could be either male or female (nothing in the poem is gender-specific), and Hughes’s biographer, Arnold Rampersad, refers to the speaker’s “childlike, perhaps androgynous persona.” There is certainly a quality of innocence in the speaker’s tone and therefore in the poem as a whole.
Although there is a period after the first four lines of each stanza, those lines do not constitute a complete sentence. Apparently, the period is there to make the reader pause and reflect on the opening lines before going on to complete each stanza’s thought. Thematically, what divides each stanza is that the...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The central contrast between light and dark, day and night, white and black, extends to the activities and the images associated with each. Daylight hours are the time of energetic exertion: Flinging arms, whirling, dancing; these exertions may be taken as representative in some degree of all daytime (and public) activities. Evening is associated with rest, night with gentleness, tenderness (and privacy). In the daytime, the self may assert itself, express itself, and expend its force; at night, there is recovery and, by implication, love.
If the most striking action of the poem is the daylight’s dancing, whirling, the most striking image of the poem is the “tall tree” beneath which one may rest at evening. In the second stanza, the speaker becomes “A tall, slim tree”; the night, a personified presence, envelops and is unified with that phallic tree. That this union is implicitly sexual is reinforced by the language describing the way in which night approaches: “comes on gently,” “coming tenderly.”
The poem’s sexual overtones are subtle; the speaker in the poem seems not to be fully conscious of them. This is part of the childlike, innocent aspect of the poem, and it is underscored by the poem’s purposefully simple vocabulary. All seventy-seven words in the poem are readily accessible; none is obscure. Moreover, seventy-one of them are words of one syllable (five have two syllables, only one has three).
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Black Nationalism and the Back-to-Africa Movement in the 1920s
The end of World War I in 1918 proved to be a mixed blessing for black Americans. When the 400,000 blacks who had served during the war returned home, many were dismayed to find that their service to the United States did not mean that they would finally achieve the respect and dignity necessary to participate fully in the American dream. To make matters worse, thousands of blacks who had moved from the South to work in northern factories during the labor shortages of the war years were thrown out of their jobs to make room for returning white soldiers. As racial resentment grew between the two groups, violence spread throughout the country. In the South, lynchings increased alarmingly, and in 1919, over seventy blacks were murdered by white racists who feared black advancement as an assault on southern culture. Conditions were hardly better in the North, and in July 1919, tensions came to boil in Chicago after a black youth swimming in Lake Michigan drowned after being stoned by whites who feared he was swimming too close to their exclusive beach. Chicago erupted in rioting that continued for over a week and subsided only after the deaths of 38 people. In other northern cities, similar violence erupted, leaving 120 Americans dead, the majority of whom were black.
The greatest black populist response to this racial tension and violence was organized by Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican...
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By conventional poetic standards, the structure of “Dream Variations” is simple: there are two rhyming lines (die/fly, go/snow); the first, second and fourth line of each stanza each have four syllables; there is no consistent rhythmic structure (no meter); and 26 of the 32 words are just one syllable. But, this poem does not intend to follow any poetic structure: Hughes has given it the structure of the blues, a musical form from the American South with its rhythmic roots in Africa. Blues songs deal with loss and defeat in such a way that hardship can be contained, even conquered, in the minds of the people who have suffered. It is the strict structure of the blues that helps the mind take control of the misery stated in the words. In standard blues, there is one long line, with a pause in the middle, repeated and then followed by a long unbroken third line, followed by a fourth line that resolves the problem, sometimes happily but usually stoically, accepting a bad situation. In each stanza of “Dreams,” Hughes uses the long first line with the pause in the middle (represented by the line break after “dreams” in lines 1 and 5), but he does not repeat this line. There is a climax in the third line of each stanza that draws attention to itself by giving the reader the poem’s vivid imagery (“broken-winged bird” and “barren field”); and a final line that could, by itself, leave the reader with a bleak view of the world if the poem did not twice...
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Compare and Contrast
1920s: Marcus Garvey, the charismatic and controversial leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, gains popularity with his call for education, solidarity, and black pride to help lift African Americans out of the cycle of poverty and despair that is a result of racism.
Today: Minister Louis Farrakhan, the charismatic and controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, preaches a message of black pride and solidarity to help African Americans forge their own identity separate from white American culture.
1920s: Racial tensions result in violence in a number of U.S. cities, including Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia.
Today: Racial tensions in many U.S. cities are high after the 2001 racial riots in Cincinnati following the police shooting of a young black man.
1920s: African Americans work at the lowest paying jobs available, usually as janitors, dishwashers, garbage collectors, and domestics, because they lack education for better jobs. Further, many unions work actively to exclude them from their trades and organizations.
Today: More than one-third of all black families lives in poverty, while 10 percent of white families can be officially classified as poor. The percentage of black high school graduates going on to college is nearly the same as that of white high school graduates, but a far smaller proportion of blacks than whites complete high school....
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Topics for Further Study
Research the different ways that dreams are used and understood in different cultures. For example, find out how dreaming is viewed in the Australian aboriginal tradition, in ancient African myths and legends, and in modern Western theories of psychoanalysis. What do these various approaches to understanding dreams have in common?
Try to find examples in Western literature where “blackness” has been used to stand for negative, sinister, or depraved and evil qualities and where “whiteness” has been looked upon as implying purity, innocence, and goodness.
Examine how the “American dream” has been depicted in American literature. Is there a difference between how the idea has been expressed by white writers and black writers?
Explore how the black nationalism movement has evolved since the 1920s.
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Voices and Visions: Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper (1999) is a video biography that illustrates the importance of Langston Hughes as a poet and as the voice of African Americans and a champion of black artists.
In Langston Hughes Reads His Poetry (1995), Hughes reads from his works and shares his experiences growing up black in the early- to midtwentieth century in an openly segregated and prejudiced society.
The Academy of American Poets maintains a Hughes web page at http://www.poets.org (last accessed January, 2002) with links to other interesting sites.
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What Do I Read Next?
The great American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” (1963) looks forward to a time when all races can participate fully in the “American dream.”
In his poem “Harlem” (1951), Hughes asks his famous question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” referring to the fact that African Americans’ hopes for political and economic freedom were not able to be realized because of racist attitudes.
The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African- American Culture, 1920–1930 (1996), by Steven Watson, traces the influential African-American cultural movement, of which Hughes was a key figure, that changed the way black intellectuals and artists thought about themselves.
Children of the Dream: Our Own Stories of Growing Up Black in America (2000), edited by Laurel Holliday, presents the stories of thirtyeight African Americans who explain what it is like to grow up black amidst racial prejudice.
Race Matters (1995), by Cornel West, is a collection of highly readable essays that explore the problem of race in America.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baldwin, James, “Sermons and Blues,” in New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1959, p. 6.
Barksdale, Richard, Langston Hughes: The Poet and His Critics, American Library Association, 1977, p. 4.
Brinkley, Alan, The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People, McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993, pp. 628–29.
Dickinson, Donald C., A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes, 1902–1967, Archon Books, 1967, p. 29.
Emanuel, James A., “Langston Hughes,” in Twayne’s United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.
Garvey, Marcus, “Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World,” in Modern Black Nationalism from Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan, edited by William L. van Deburg, New York University Press, 1997, pp. 24–31.
Hoagwood, Kimberly, “Two States of Mind in ‘Dream Variations,’” in Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 1983, pp. 16–18.
Hudson, Theodore R., “Langston Hughes’ Last Volume of Verse,” in CLA Journal, June 1968, pp. 345–48.
Hughes, Langston, The Big Sea: An Autobiography, Alfred A. Knopf, 1940, pp. 18–26, 325.
Ikonne, Chidi, “Affirmation of Black Self,” in From Du Bois to Van Vechten: The Early New Negro Literature, 1903- 1906, reprinted in Langston Hughes, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Wings Books, 1995.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.
Chinitz, David. “Rejuvenation Through Joy: Langston Hughes, Primitivism, and Jazz.” American Literary History 9 (Spring, 1997): 60-78.
Cooper, Floyd. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Philomel Books, 1994.
Harper, Donna Sullivan. Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
Haskins, James. Always Movin’ On: The Life of Langston Hughes. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1993.
Hokanson, Robert O’Brien. “Jazzing It Up: The Be-bop Modernism of Langston Hughes.” Mosaic 31 (December, 1998): 61-82.
Leach, Laurie F. Langston Hughes: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Mullen, Edward J., ed. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.
Ostrum, Hans A. A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University...
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