Claude McKay

Start Free Trial

"The city both offers and restricts possibility." How would you respond to this statement in regards to the poems by Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, listed below?   Please discuss Claude McKay's poems "When Dawn Comes to the City," "Subway Wind," "The Tropics in New York,"and "Drama for Winter Night (Fifth Avenue)"; and Langston Hughes' pieces "Second Generation: New York," "Harlem Sweeties" (both poems), "Manhattan Island," "Pushcart Man," "Harlem Night Club," "The Weary Blues," "Good Morning," "Harlem Dance Hall," and "Trumpet Player."

Both writers celebrate and criticize the city (in these poems) in ways that are consistent with their respective temperaments.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The poems by Claude McKay mentioned above suggest that life in the city more often restricts possibilities than offering them. Such restrictions are emphasized, for instance, in his poem titled “When Dawn Comes to the City.” Despite its potentially hopeful title, most of this poem's imagery of the city is dark and bleak. This bleakness is emphasized all the more because the city is contrasted with an “island of the sea” that is full of beautifully rural sights and sounds. In this poem as in others by McKay, the city is associated with restrictions, while the countryside is associated with vitality.

Much the same kind of contrast is emphasized in McKay’s poem titled “Subway Wind,” which describes how the laughter of schoolchildren emerging from subway cars

. . . is swallowed in the deafening roar

Of captive wind that moans for fields and seas;

Seas cooling warm where native schooners drift

Through sleepy waters, while gulls wheel and sweep . . . .

Here again, then, the city is depicted as a place of grim restrictions, while the ocean and rural places are associated with freedom and beauty. Even a poem with the apparently optimistic title “The Tropics in New York” implicitly contrasts (rather than unites) the two places the title mentions. The speaker imagines all the sensual pleasures he associates with the tropics, but he does so only to emphasize their absence in the city – an absence that makes him weep.

In contrast, Langston Hughes’s poem “Second Generation: New York” focuses on all the memorable and attractive aspects of a large city and even suggests that life in the city is at least as worthwhile as – if not even better than – life in Old World countries. Similarly, Hughes’ poem titled “Harlem Sweeties” also celebrates the joys (especially the joys of seeing beautiful women) the city provides, as in these lines:

Harlem girls vary—

So if you want to know beauty’s

Rainbow-sweet thrill,

Stroll down luscious,

Delicious, fine Sugar Hill.

The tone of the poem “The Weary Blues” is far more subdued, as its title alone would suggest, but just the opposite is the case with “Harlem Dance Hall,” which celebrates the way dance music makes the hall come alive as if it were full of

. . . flowers,


And air . . .

"Harlem Night Club" is similarly vital and vibrant and ends with the line "Joy today!"

In short, most of the poems by Hughes discussed here celebrate the city as a place of possibilities, while the poems by McKay instead emphasize the restrictions associated with urban life.

Something extra: The disparities between the reactions by these to writers to life in the city (at least in these particular works) invites attention from biographical and psychoanalytic schools of critics. Critics associated with those approachces might want to study the lives, minds, and psyches of McKay and Hughes to try to determine what factors, if any, may have been responsible for the apparently different sensibilities and outlooks of these two men. If one took into account only on the evidence cited above, McKay seems to have been the more melancholy of the two, or perhaps the more seriously homesick.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team