Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Hughes wrote about dreams throughout his career, in virtually every book of poems he published. It could be argued that dreams represent the dominant theme in his poetry. “Dream Variations” is one of his earliest poems to articulate a dream, and in its enigmatic duality it is accurately representative—expressive—of its author.
The dream is dual because it embraces, or seeks to embrace, day and night, light and dark, white and black, and the other polarities associated with these: motion and rest, flux and stasis, performances both public and private. The middle line of the poem—“That is my dream!”—points to everything that comes before it, and, since the last eight lines recapitulate the first eight, it points as well to everything that follows. The duality is enigmatic, because the poem’s images are ambiguous. What, if anything, apart from themselves, do the whirling and dancing stand for? How can the dream embrace both day and night and all that is associated with each? How does the poem, or how can the reader, reconcile the polarities?
Careful use of biographical materials can sometimes provide insights into a poet’s work, and Rampersad’s excellent two-volume The Life of Langston Hughes (1986) convincingly argues that Hughes was “a divided man” in his attitudes toward and feelings about race. This insight may provide one way (among many potential ways) of approaching “Dream Variations.”
(The entire section is 601 words.)
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The Spiritual Reunion with Africa
Although nowhere in “Dream Variations” does the speaker say where his dream takes place, it has been suggested by many critics that the “place of the sun” to which he refers is Africa. Langston Hughes wrote the poem in 1924, a time when the Back to Africa movement was gaining strength, when African art was being introduced to Europe and America, and when many African Americans were searching for a place and values that were distinctly their own and not part of white American culture. Hughes had traveled to West Africa in 1923, and in many of his early poems, he uses Africa to represent an ideal, a place of warmth and freedom that is a foil to the cold, uncaring atmosphere of the United States where for blacks discrimination, racism, and often brutal treatment were a feature of everyday life.
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker describes his dream. He is in a sunny place, his arms flung wide as he whirls and dances until the end of the day. At evening, he rests beneath a tall tree. The images of the sun, dancing, and a tall tree seem to suggest an exotic, tropical paradise free of worry and where the spirit can be liberated. The second stanza presents the same images in more intense form. In both stanzas, there is a sense that the place of the dream is beautiful and primitive. If the place is Africa, it is a land of joy and freedom, and there the speaker enjoys a sense of spiritual as well as...
(The entire section is 1245 words.)