“Dream Variations” combines two distinct motifs that were evident in Langston Hughes’s poetry throughout his lifetime. It is written in a structure that copies the repetitions of American blues music, and it is aimed, as many of his works were, primarily at children. Published first in 1932, in the collection The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, “Dream Variations” imitates the overall structure of blues music: the first, second, and fourth lines of each stanza parallel each other in that they each have four syllables, while the third is extended, longer, building to an emotional climax. Hughes was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic movement of the 1920s and 1930s, which brought the New York African-American arts community into prominence. He used the blues structure because it was familiar to blacks who found no point of reference in standard literary modes. Using a blues style also helped Hughes swiftly and efficiently convey the mixed emotions of hope and fear that the poem brings together. Analyzing blues music in a book previous to The Dream Keeper, he observed, “The mood of the Blues is almost always despondency, but when they are sung, people laugh.” This poem takes whatever the mental process is that makes people react to bleakness with laughter, and nudges it upward toward positive action.
Hughes was a writer committed to his people, American Negroes, who suffered under segregation and discriminatory laws. His concern for justice drove him to write in a number of literary genres, including poetry, short stories, novels, plays, and essays. His poems for children stress the potential in life, encourage them to look for the good things that life has to offer, and to actively seek happiness. He was one of the few poets to state such simple ideas in the elementary language that his intended audience would understand, raising undereducated readers up to noble thoughts instead of talking down to them.