“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.
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.
(The entire section is 1,384 words.)