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.”