Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1065
Lines 1–2 In line 1, Hughes uses the word “fast,” not only because it means the same thing in this context as “close” or “tight” would, but also because the reader cannot help but think of hurrying, and this adds a sense of urgency to the poem at its very...
(The entire section contains 1065 words.)
See This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
In line 1, Hughes uses the word “fast,” not only because it means the same thing in this context as “close” or “tight” would, but also because the reader cannot help but think of hurrying, and this adds a sense of urgency to the poem at its very start. The question of how to hold a dream, which is not as obvious as it might first seem to the casual reader, is central to this piece. Throughout the poem, Hughes’s language treats dreams as if they were physical objects.
In line 3 the poem metaphorically identifies life with a bird. Hughes is very specific about why this bird could not fly. In using “broken-winged” instead of “crippled,” he implies that some violence has occurred to the bird, and therefore to the dreamless life. Birds are commonly associated with dreams and ideals in literature because their flight in the empty sky matches the idea of uninhibited freedom, like the mind’s freedom.
The first two lines are nearly repeated in lines 5–6, resembling the repetition in blues music, which this poem is based upon. Traditionally, blues lyrics describe hardship and suffering, which this poem does also. The poem, though, twice mentions holding fast to dreams, emphasizing that hardship and suffering are not inevitable. Line 6 changes the word “die” to “go”: not only does this start a new rhyme, but it also adds to the sense of how vulnerable dreams are, and how easy it is to lose them.
Since blues music is traditionally from the southern part of the United States, which is warm and was mostly farm land at the time Hughes was writing, the idea of the “barren field” is an expected metaphor. The description “frozen with snow,” however, is pointedly strange and hostile. There is a common association between barrenness, sterility (in the sense of sustaining no life), and being frozen. The picture Hughes gives of life in these lines is bleak, but even worse than doomed: he says that life can be hopeless if you allow it to be.
This line states explicitly that these images and actions constitute the speaker’s dream. The exclamation mark demonstrates the speaker’s certainty and elation about his dream.
These lines introduce the second stanza’s repetition and variation of the first stanza. Line 11 is a metaphor that personifies the sun, giving it a human “face.” Line 11 also rhymes “face” with the “place” in line 2, but changes the line’s meaning. Now that the first stanza has established the speaker’s association of the sun with whiteness, “in the face of the sun” takes on two meanings. Not only would the speaker like to fling his arms freely in daylight, but he wishes that gesture to signal joyous defiance to that face. What he defies is ambiguous; perhaps he defies all that the sun represents in this poem—whiteness, labor, exhaustion, or the passage of time that the sun’s cycles mark. Lines 12 and 13 also support this notion of defying time.
Again, this line repeats the words “whirl, dance, day” and “done” of lines 3 and 4, yet means something different. Whereas line 3 suggests how the speaker might dance to celebrate a sense of freedom, in line 12 the celebration seems frantic, ominous, and obligatory: “Dance!” is a command. The tone of the speaker’s dance may have changed be- cause the speaker has come to recognize that each passing day marks one less day to live.
Line 13 changes the “white day” of line 4 to “quick day.” The day’s “quick” passage may explain the speaker’s feeling of urgency, as if there is precious little time left in which to live. He may feel that daylight time is stolen from him by the sun as it withdraws each day. Since the effects of whiteness or white culture on this speaker are probably not “quick” (unfortunately), here the sun may shift from its previous symbolic associations with whiteness to a more conventional and literal association with time’s passage.
Like line 13’s transformation of the “white day” to a “quick day,” line 14 transforms the “cool evening” into “pale evening.” On a literal level, these variations describe day and evening in ordinary terms. But on a figurative level, “day” loses some of its associations with whiteness while “evening,” by becoming “pale,” acquires more whiteness. The ellipses (three dots indicating an unfinished thought) at the ends of lines 14 and 15 make the lines’ meanings more ambiguous. Once the evening takes on an ambiguous complexion, is it “dark” like the speaker or white like the day? The speaker’s relation to the tree is similarly uncertain. He no longer rests “beneath” it. The tree simply floats beside the image of evening. Which one “rests”: the evening or the tall slim tree? If the tree is resting (and “slim” usually refers to people), the speaker may be imagining himself as the tree. As a tree, he would achieve his dream of flinging his arms, or branches, wide in the sun, and he would have found a peaceful, safe, and more permanent home on Earth. Simply by using the vague punctuation of ellipses, Hughes uproots the reader’s sense of where the speaker is at and what is being compared. Although the reader can assume that the speaker does not actually become a tree, the speaker’s vision of transformation suggests that he achieves a momentary feeling of peace and eternity, if only in his imagination.
As either a tree or a man, night still seems to the speaker to be tender and familiarly black. The change from “dark like me” (line 8) to “black like me” in the final line suggests a shift like that of evening to night: from an in-between stage to a complete stage, where darkness predominates over light.
Here the speaker compares nature to himself (“like me”). Night closes the poem, forming the last image of passing time. Through this comparison and this concluding image, Hughes conveys a pride in Blackness. Hughes’s poems consistently create images and arguments for black pride. In 1924, when this poem was written, the concept of black pride was radical and rarely expressed in print. Contemporary readers must consider the era and culture in which this or any poem was written in order to understand more fully the poem’s impact on literary and American history.