“The City” is a very short, simple poem of eight lines, divided into two equal stanzas. The rhyme scheme is abcb aded, and the grammatical parallelism of the two stanzas is further emphasized by the very close metrical repetition of seven, three, four and four syllables in the first quatrain, followed by seven, three, three and four in the second.
In the first stanza, the city is imagined as a bird, both spreading its wings and singing a song. Birdsong is clearly associated with morning, but the city’s song is a song in stone, a brilliantly evocative image, recalling Goethe’s description of architecture as “frozen music” and even Baudelaire’s sonnet on beauty, which begins with the image of a dream in stone. The alliteration and assonance in “song” and “stone” emphasize the connection between the two apparently contradictory words.
The paradoxes continue in the second stanza. The city is personified as one retiring to bed, but while a person who goes to bed extinguishes lights, the city hangs them above its head, remaining brightly lit until it spreads its wings the next morning. The metaphor, in each case, stresses the inclusiveness of the city. Hughes was a great traveler, but was particularly familiar with New York, where the multicultural atmosphere gave rise to the Harlem Renaissance, in which he played such a prominent part.
The symbols of the bird sheltering inhabitants beneath its wings, the song in stone, and the lights that shine throughout the night all contribute to the theme of the city as a welcoming and inclusive place, as well as a uniquely beautiful one.