Summary and Analysis
“Dreams,” by the African-American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967), is typical of Hughes’s poetry in the lucidity and simplicity of its style and in the clarity and directness of its meaning. The fact that the poem is so short is appropriate to its subject matter: as the very first line implies, dreams are often brief and difficult to retain. The “dreams” mentioned in that line, however, seem not so much to be those that come to us normally at night, when we are unconscious. Rather, the “dreams” that are the main subject of this poem are the hopes, ideals, and goals that can give daily life its meaning and purpose.
The poem opens by directly addressing its readers, offering them clear and explicit advice. The very first word is a verb, counseling appropriate action. The opening line is somewhat paradoxical, since the verb “hold” implies a tight grip, while the noun “dreams” implies something abstract, elusive, and evanescent. In the very opening line, then, the speaker already implies that holding fast to dreams may be difficult but is nonetheless important.
If line 1 opens the poem with a strong, immediate assertion, line 2 begins to explain the logic behind that advice—logic signaled by the simple word “For.” The importance of “dreams” is suggested by the repetition of the key word twice in the first two lines. The brevity of the poem’s lines (most of them consisting of merely four syllables each) contributes to the rhetorical impact and effectiveness of the work. The speaker presents no long, complicated phrasing; instead, everything about the poem is brief and emphatic. The poem is short not only in the number of its lines (eight altogether) but also in the number of syllables in most of those eight lines. It is as if the speaker wants to waste no words. He wants to offer his advice, and provide his explanations, as briefly and forcefully as he can.
The comparison of a life without dreams to a “broken-winged bird” is the first use of concrete imagery in a poem so far (and mostly) consisting of abstract assertions. The image is effective because it suggests a bird that either once was able to fly but now cannot, or a bird that has never been able to fly. In either case, the idea of a “broken-winged bird” implies a bird that is robbed of its natural potential and that may even be subject to serious danger. A “broken-winged bird” is a bird that cannot see and experience all that it was born to see and experience. A “broken-winged” bird is a bird that literally cannot rise to any great heights, just as a life without dreams is crippled, stunted, and robbed of its full potential. This image, like everything else in this poem, is clear, simple, direct, and rooted in common sense.
The second half of the poem reiterates the meaning and structure of the first half. Line 5 is a direct repetition of line 1. Line 6 is very similar in phrasing and syntax to line 2. Lines 7-8 offer another image that complements and reinforces the imagery of lines 3-4. The use of such repetitions of phrasing and structure makes the poem even more emphatic than it had been already. However, Hughes was wise enough to realize that yet another such repetition might have seemed excessive and tedious, and so he stopped with merely one statement and one reiteration of it. He thus achieves the effects of both emphasis and concision.
(The entire section is 880 words.)