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Both of the poems, Langston Hughes' "Little Old Letter," and James Weldon Johnson's "Since You Went Away," deal with the subject of loss. However, the poems are very different in tone.
Whereas Johnson writes romantic verse listing all the many ways life has changed for the speaker since the woman he loves has left him, Hughes' poem is much darker and its impact almost leaves one breathless.
"Since You Went Away" deals with loss as compared to losing the light from stars and sun. It continues with saying the sky is not as beautiful, and his loss of her leaves him lacking purpose, direction. Then he says that nothing is right, the days are long, and even the birds don't sing anymore. He finishes by saying that his life is a mess since she left. He cries and sighs for her.
Perhaps the rhyme helps keep the poem from becoming too dark: "bright," "light," "right" are not heavy words. "Blue," "you" and "do" are not used to convey a sense of devastation. And even though it seems his feelings for his lost love are true, the sun will come up again tomorrow for the speaker, and life will go on for him.
In "Little Old Letter," there is a rhyme as well, but it does not have a "sing-song" movement, almost like a child's swing, as Johnson's poem does. The title is deceptive. Hughes does not prepare us for what is to come. In fact, he describes the poem's subject as a wee, small thing, seeming to be of no real consequence, until we read on.
Though we never learn the contents of the letter, the speaker conveys clearly the essence of its contents. He goes to the mailbox to look for a letter; in itself, this is a daily routine and nothing of special significance. The first clue is found in the fourth line "made me turn right pale." Immediately we know something is wrong: the letter is the source of dismay.
The second stanza repeats the sense that this letter was tiny, seemingly insignificant: "Wasn't even one page long." But the speaker continues with a dramatic and dark image: "But it made me wish / I was in my grave and gone." The speaker, upon reading the letter, wishes he were dead.
The third stanza is slightly anti-climatic: the letter's recipient turns it over, but finds no further explanation, nothing to take the sting from the words or provide him with any relief. He goes on to say that he has never been so lonely since the day he was born.
The final stanza, however, cuts like a razor: the metaphor here compares a pencil and pen to a gun or knife, insisting that both are equally deadly if one wants to take a life.
Both poems have the common theme of a loss of love. Johnson's poem leaves the reader with a sense of his sadness, but also of his ability to cope.
Hughes' poem uses "emotionally-charged words" (as I call them) such as "pale," "grave," "lonesome," and phrases "no gun or knife" and "Can take a person's life." At the end of his poem, he leaves the reader with the sense that he is hopeless, sees no future, wishes he were dead, and acknowledges that 'the word is just as mighty as the sword' (or gun or knife).
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