The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Dream Variations” (originally “Dream Variation”) consists of two stanzas, the first of nine lines, the second of eight. Its title connects it with one of Langston Hughes’s major themes: dreams, especially the dreams of African Americans.

The variations referred to in the title are those that the second stanza introduces: The first eight lines of stanza 1 correspond closely, line by line, with the eight lines of stanza 2. The first lines of the two stanzas are in fact identical, but thereafter stanza 2 varies from stanza 1, sometimes by the change of but a word, sometimes by more pronounced changes. The most dramatic variation is in line 3: “To whirl and to dance” becomes “Dance! Whirl! Whirl!”

The poem is written in the first person, so it is tempting to associate the speaker with the poet himself. Yet the speaker could be either male or female (nothing in the poem is gender-specific), and Hughes’s biographer, Arnold Rampersad, refers to the speaker’s “childlike, perhaps androgynous persona.” There is certainly a quality of innocence in the speaker’s tone and therefore in the poem as a whole.

Although there is a period after the first four lines of each stanza, those lines do not constitute a complete sentence. Apparently, the period is there to make the reader pause and reflect on the opening lines before going on to complete each stanza’s thought. Thematically, what divides each stanza is that the first four lines allude to daylight hours, the fifth and sixth lines to the transitional phase of evening, and the seventh and eighth lines to the coming of night. The contrast between light and dark is central to the poem.

There is a strong suggestion that the light and dark hours of the day correlate with white and black cultures and people. Thus “the white day” not only refers to the time when the sun is out but also hints at the whole workaday world in which white people (in the young Langston Hughes’s experience) were mostly in charge. The poem’s black speaker explicitly associates night with himself or herself: It is “Dark like me” and “Black like me.”

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The central contrast between light and dark, day and night, white and black, extends to the activities and the images associated with each. Daylight hours are the time of energetic exertion: Flinging arms, whirling, dancing; these exertions may be taken as representative in some degree of all daytime (and public) activities. Evening is associated with rest, night with gentleness, tenderness (and privacy). In the daytime, the self may assert itself, express itself, and expend its force; at night, there is recovery and, by implication, love.

If the most striking action of the poem is the daylight’s dancing, whirling, the most striking image of the poem is the “tall tree” beneath which one may rest at evening. In the second stanza, the speaker becomes “A tall, slim tree”; the night, a personified presence, envelops and is unified with that phallic tree. That this union is implicitly sexual is reinforced by the language describing the way in which night approaches: “comes on gently,” “coming tenderly.”

The poem’s sexual overtones are subtle; the speaker in the poem seems not to be fully conscious of them. This is part of the childlike, innocent aspect of the poem, and it is underscored by the poem’s purposefully simple vocabulary. All seventy-seven words in the poem are readily accessible; none is obscure. Moreover, seventy-one of them are words of one syllable (five have two syllables, only one has three).


(The entire section is 419 words.)

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Black Nationalism and the Back-to-Africa Movement in the 1920s
The end of World War I in 1918 proved to be a mixed blessing for...

(The entire section is 927 words.)

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

By conventional poetic standards, the structure of “Dream Variations” is simple: there are two rhyming lines (die/fly, go/snow); the...

(The entire section is 270 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1920s: Marcus Garvey, the charismatic and controversial leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, gains popularity with...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Research the different ways that dreams are used and understood in different cultures. For example, find out how dreaming is viewed in the...

(The entire section is 124 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

Voices and Visions: Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper (1999) is a video biography that illustrates the importance of Langston Hughes...

(The entire section is 90 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

The great American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” (1963) looks forward to a time...

(The entire section is 163 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Baldwin, James, “Sermons and Blues,” in New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1959, p. 6.


(The entire section is 482 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Wings Books, 1995.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Chinitz, David. “Rejuvenation Through Joy: Langston Hughes, Primitivism, and Jazz.” American Literary History 9 (Spring, 1997): 60-78.

Cooper, Floyd. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Philomel Books, 1994.

Harper, Donna Sullivan. Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Haskins, James. Always Movin’ On: The Life of Langston Hughes. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1993.

Hokanson, Robert O’Brien. “Jazzing It Up: The Be-bop Modernism of Langston Hughes.” Mosaic 31 (December, 1998): 61-82.

Leach, Laurie F. Langston Hughes: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Mullen, Edward J., ed. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

Ostrum, Hans A. A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Tracy, Steven C., ed. A Historical Guide to Langston Hughes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.