Langston Hughes Questions and Answers

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What is the tone of Langston Hughes's poem "Dreams"?

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It is also possible to read this poem as having a somewhat hopeless and sad tone, as though Hughes knows that many readers will not take his advice concerning the importance of keeping dreams alive at all costs—perhaps because they are unable to do so. The transition from "if dreams die" in line two to "when dreams go" in line six makes it seem as though, for some, the eventual absence of dreams is certain instead of merely possible.  The word "if" implies that the death of dreams is a possibility only, that it is also possible that dreams will not die.  However, the word "when" implies a sense of inevitability, that, for some, life will indeed become a "barren field" that produces nothing.  The knowledge that this relinquishing or abandonment of dreams will happen for some seems to be quite sad for Hughes, as we see from the sorrowful connotation of the "barren" and "frozen" field that lies fallow and lifeless.  A life without dreams appears to be a life devoid of... well... life.  It lacks vitality, joy, impact.  The fact that Hughes employs the word "when" signals the inevitability of such a life for those who are unable to maintain their dreams and his consequent sadness for their lot.

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The term tone is defined as the author's attitude "toward a subject or an audience" ("Tone," Literary Devices). We can detect multiple tones in Langston Hughes's short poem "Dream."

Since Hughes opens with a command for his audience, as we see in the phrase "[h]old fast," we can say that the first attitude he takes toward his audience is didactic, meaning instructive. He is very serious about teaching his audience his wisdom concerning holding on to their dreams thereby encouraging his audience.

Hughes's poem is also filled with images of death such as the "broken-winged bird" that will surely die because it cannot survive without the ability to fly and the "barren field" that is not producing crops because it is dead, suffocated beneath the freezing cold snow. Since an underlying subject of his poem is civil injustices, his use of death images show he fully understands the pain his audience has endured at the hands of civil injustices due to racial prejudices. Therefore, his words also express a sorrowful tone felt concerning the subject of civil injustices. Yet, at the same time, since he speaks of the ability to "[h]old fast to dreams," he also expresses a vaguely optimistic tone that further expresses his earnest desire for African Americans to not let their dreams of freedom die.

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