Compare these Langston Hughes poems: "Dream Variation" and "Harlem."  

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The poetry of Langston Hughes is lyrical with beautiful images that emphasize his theme of dreams.  Two poems by Hughes that convey his thoughts about the black man’s ambitions are “Dream Variations” and “Harlem.” Each poem approaches the subject of dreams from a different perspective.

Dream Variations

The speaker in the poem addresses the dream of freedom. His dream would enable him [representing all black people] to be free to spread his arms as wide as he can [symbolic of freedom to do what he chooses] and whirl and dance as long as he wanted. 

The poet calls the day white referring to the constrictions that have been applied to the black man’s joy and liberty by white America. The cool, gentle night brings freedom to the black man as he sits under a tree and enjoys himself.

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done
Then rest

The second verse has stronger implications.  The speaker changes his desire to almost a demand for his autonomy.  Now, he wants to face the sun—a change from the first stanza where he wanted to be in a place where the sun was shining. 

With his arms flung out, he now wants: Dance! Whirl! Whirl! The day is no longer white not but quick.  Now as though resting from a hard day’s work, he sits in the pale evening under the “slim, tall tree.” The night is tender indicating passion rather than just a dream.  The night is black like the poet. 

The obvious difference in the stanzas conveys the attitude of the slave versus the attitude of the black man.  In 1923 when the poem was written, freedom for the black man was still questionable certainly in the south.  Hughes wanted all black men to face the truth: he was still subservient to the white man.  The soft desire becomes demands when the civil rights movement comes to fruition in the 1950s.

“Harlem”

The speaker begins with a rhetorical question: What happens to a dream deferred?

The black man wants equality, opportunities, respect, and the  freedom to spread out his arms.

The poet speaks to both the black man and the white culture with both a warning and a threat. 

The poem’s images are presented in  similes. As the poem progresses, the comparisons become more stark and ugly. Hughes involves all of the senses as he takes the reader through his explanation

A dream that is never realized becomes  a grape that dries up like a raisin.

The dream might become infected and embittered and then run…This warning indicates that the dreams that are shattered may embolden  the black men to stand up to the white man and his rules.

If dreams are deferred, it may smell like rotting meat.

The dreams may be incomplete because of the fake promises of the white man to the black man.  “You will be free. You can do what you want. You can get an education.” All lies told to the black man. 

The black man carries this heavy load of desires and dreams on his back.  Eventually, as it did in Chicago and Los Angeles, this dreams will not be held back any longer; consequently, the black man may find a way to explode. 

The poems are linked by the subject of dreams. In “ Dream Variations,” the poem tells and then demands his place in society. From “Harlem,” the speaker explains what might occur in the black man is not allowed top pursue his liberty.   

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