Please do a line-by-line analysis of the poem "Harlem" by American poet Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes's poem "Harlem" poses a series of questions about what might happen to a dream deferred, beginning with the forms of harm this might inflict on the dreamer and ending with the potential for explosive violence.

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"Harlem" is written in free verse, having no established sense of meter or rhyme. Its lines vary in length and employ both indentations and italics in its form. All of these elements lend to the unpredictability of the poem, which is a central theme that Hughes develops. The poem also uses numerous hard stops at the ends of lines, using five question marks and two em dashes in just eleven lines. This forces the reader to confront these hard stops to mirror the experience of those who have had their "dream[s] deferred."

The speaker deviates from the expected syntax from the opening line. Typically, we would expect the adjective to precede the noun: a deferred dream. Yet this construction emphasizes that the focus is on the dream itself and that logic has been defied. This line is interrogative, inviting a more personal experience with the reader.

The next lines employs alliteration: Does it dry up. Each word in this line is only one syllable, and the overall effect is a barren existence that reflects the simile in the next line. Raisins used to be grapes, full of life and moisture. They once existed in a completely different form.

The sense of distaste intensifies in the next lines as the speaker compares the experience of having dreams deferred to a sore that festers, or is filled with infection and pus. It runs over with bitterness, unable to contain its response to contaminants. A few lines later, the speaker asks whether deferred dreams eventually "crust and sugar over." This imagery conveys the sense that people with deferred dreams may "put on a happy face" while hiding a much more sickly truth below the surface of contentment.

Finally, readers arrive at a statement. There is no question here: Having to face continually deferred dreams weighs people down "like a heavy load."

There is a duality in the closing question, set off in italics. We both celebrate and fear explosions. Sometimes they signal joy, such as annual firework displays. And at other times, they signal death, such as in war. The italics here are unexpected, which reflects the unpredictability of explosions and therefore of the effects of deferred dreams.

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Langston Hughes's "Harlem" is a poem of eleven lines, arranged in four stanzas of unequal length. The first and last stanzas each contain just one line. The reader may be expecting a descriptive poem about Harlem, but, since that location is not mentioned after the title, the relationship between title and poem is another question the poem raises.

The first stanza poses the question:

What happens to a dream deferred?

The second stanza then answers this with four more questions, each containing a vivid image. The first, probably the poem's best-known image, is "a raisin in the sun." A raisin is already a dried grape, but here it becomes ever drier, losing the little juice it had. The second image is perhaps the most disturbing: a running sore, painful as well as putrid. The smell of "rotten meat" adds an extra sense to the imagery of corruption. Finally the "crust" on the syrupy sweet suggests that the deferral of dreams causes the subject to develop a hard carapace to ward off future disappointment.

The third stanza is the only one that does not contain a question. The noncommittal "Maybe" at the beginning suggests that the speaker is not particularly interested in the possibility it contains, and is fatigued with thinking about the question. This makes the final stanza, printed in italics, even more striking:

Or does it explode?

This final line raises for the first time the question of violence. All the previous images have depicted the harm of a dream deferred turned inwards on the dreamer, but an explosion harms all those around it.

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To deconstruct this poem, I'll go stanza by stanza: 

  1. What happens to a dream deferred? 
    Hughes begins his poem with a question, which invites the reader into the conversation. The statement is attention-grabbing not only because of its interrogative syntax but also because of its use of alliteration for the letter 'd': Dream Deferred. In terms of diction, deferred is an interesting choice, meaning "put off to a later time". 

  2. Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore - / And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over - / like a syrupy sweet? 
    Hughes begins using simile to compare deferred dreams to other items that could be put off until later or ignored. He compares a dream to a desiccated raisin left too long in the sun, a pus-filled open sore left unattended, ignored meat that begins to smell, and cracked, crusty candy forgotten instead of eaten. Interesting here is Hughes' continued use of the interrogative, which invites the reader to consider each possibility and weigh its legitimacy rather than simply receiving information. 

  3. Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load. 
    This is the first use of a declarative statement, or non-question, in the poem. The tone shifts from questioning to flat, which reinforces the content of the sentence, also discussing something sagging or becoming heavy and unmovable. 

  4. Or does it explode?
    Switching back to questions, Hughes here uses italics to emphasize the abrupt shift in tone. It passes over the curiosity of the first two stanzas and catapults into hysteria, mirroring the suddenly violent image, totally unlike any other thus far. 

An interesting question for the reader is the following: Considering Hughes' personal context, why is the title of the poem "Harlem"?

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