Student Question

Compare the poems "Dream Variation" and "Harlem" by Langston Hughes.

Quick answer:

Both "Harlem" and "Dreams" employ comparisons, similes, metaphors, and imagery in order to convey their respective messages about dreams. In "Harlem," a deferred dream can eventually blow up, like a bomb, causing damage to all who have attempted to stifle it. In "Dreams," the speaker suggests that a life without dreams is a sterile and unfulfilled one.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The poetry of Langston Hughes is lyrical with beautiful images that emphasize his theme of dreams.  Two poems by Hughes that convey his thoughts about the black man’s ambitions are “Dream Variations” and “Harlem.” Each poem approaches the subject of dreams from a different perspective.

Dream Variations

The speaker in the poem addresses the dream of freedom. His dream would enable him [representing all black people] to be free to spread his arms as wide as he can [symbolic of freedom to do what he chooses] and whirl and dance as long as he wanted. 

The poet calls the day white referring to the constrictions that have been applied to the black man’s joy and liberty by white America. The cool, gentle night brings freedom to the black man as he sits under a tree and enjoys himself.

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done
Then rest

The second verse has stronger implications.  The speaker changes his desire to almost a demand for his autonomy.  Now, he wants to face the sun—a change from the first stanza where he wanted to be in a place where the sun was shining. 

With his arms flung out, he now wants: Dance! Whirl! Whirl! The day is no longer white not but quick.  Now as though resting from a hard day’s work, he sits in the pale evening under the “slim, tall tree.” The night is tender indicating passion rather than just a dream.  The night is black like the poet. 

The obvious difference in the stanzas conveys the attitude of the slave versus the attitude of the black man.  In 1923 when the poem was written, freedom for the black man was still questionable certainly in the south.  Hughes wanted all black men to face the truth: he was still subservient to the white man.  The soft desire becomes demands when the civil rights movement comes to fruition in the 1950s.


The speaker begins with a rhetorical question: What happens to a dream deferred?

The black man wants equality, opportunities, respect, and the  freedom to spread out his arms.

The poet speaks to both the black man and the white culture with both a warning and a threat. 

The poem’s images are presented in  similes. As the poem progresses, the comparisons become more stark and ugly. Hughes involves all of the senses as he takes the reader through his explanation

A dream that is never realized becomes  a grape that dries up like a raisin.

The dream might become infected and embittered and then run…This warning indicates that the dreams that are shattered may embolden  the black men to stand up to the white man and his rules.

If dreams are deferred, it may smell like rotting meat.

The dreams may be incomplete because of the fake promises of the white man to the black man.  “You will be free. You can do what you want. You can get an education.” All lies told to the black man. 

The black man carries this heavy load of desires and dreams on his back.  Eventually, as it did in Chicago and Los Angeles, this dreams will not be held back any longer; consequently, the black man may find a way to explode. 

The poems are linked by the subject of dreams. In “ Dream Variations,” the poem tells and then demands his place in society. From “Harlem,” the speaker explains what might occur in the black man is not allowed top pursue his liberty.   

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How do Langston Hughes' poems "Dreams" and "Harlem" contrast in their meanings? 

Langston Hughes was a literary giant in American poetry. Writing during the period called the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes focused most of his poetry toward the Black American in the mid twentieth century. However, Hughes' poems speak to anyone who has goals and dreams.

This first poem "Dreams" can be divided by anaphora, or repeated lines.

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die...

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go...

Hughes advises everyone, particularly the Negro, to never let go of their dreams. Using two beautiful metaphors, he suggests that if someone gives up on his hopes for the future, his life would be no better than a bird with a broken wing who cannot soar.

The other metaphor compares the loss of hope and dreams  to a pasture once beautiful, but now frozen and barren. In essence, Hughes tells his audience to dream and work toward achieving those goals.

The second poem "Harlem" [A Dream Deferred] has a different theme. Beginning with a rhetorical question, the poet asks what happens when a person has to postpone or put off his dreams?What happens to a dream deferred? The answer to the question comes in figurative, yet more earthy language. Using similes, the language describing the lost dreams becomes more disturbing:  

Is it like a luscious grape that lies in the sun too long?  

Does it ooze and become an infected sore?

Does it turn to rancid meat?

Does someone try to sugar coat it and pretend that it is okay?

Or does it weigh down the person like a hefty sack?

Or does it well up and finally blow up?

Hughes was referring to the battles that black America faced. The undercurrent was there festering in every Negro home in America. Equality and integration for all: if we do not get it, we do not know what will happen.

When Hughes was writing his poetry, it was before the start of the Civil Rights Movement. Black America struggled under the weight of segregation: poor housing, separate schools, and low paying jobs. 

"Dreams" advises a person never to give up on desires and goals. In contrast, "Harlem" is a warning to white America that this is where the black man stands: waiting too long for his complete freedom.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Hughes's poem "Dreams" compare to his poem "Harlem"? Compare and contrast the themes of these poems, as well as the devices used to establish those themes.

In "Harlem," Langston Hughes uses similes and a metaphor, as well as vivid and descriptive imagery, to convey the idea that forcing people to delay their dreams can lead to violence. Using a series of five similes, the speaker compares a deferred dream to a dried up "raisin in the sun," a festering sore than runs with pus, a stinky piece of rotten meat, a too-sweet sugary treat that is too syrupy to enjoy, and a really "heavy load" that feels like a great burden to someone. All of these are inconvenient and, perhaps, even painful to an individual, but the final metaphor has wider implications. In it, the speaker asks if the deferred dream "explode[s]," comparing it, via metaphor, to a bomb. The line is set apart, italicized, and contains the only metaphor in the entire poem, which is full of rhetorically weaker similes. These imply that this response to the initial question is the truest one. A deferred dream can ultimately impact more than just the would-be dreamer but anyone and everyone who compelled him or her to wait. It can become violent and destructive.

In "Dreams," Hughes uses metaphors and visual imagery to describe life without dreams as hopeless and sterile. The speaker compares a life without dreams to a "broken-winged bird / That cannot fly." It cannot do, then, the thing it was meant to do; it has been hobbled, just as a life with no dreams is not a full life. Further, the speaker says that, in the absence of dreams, life is "a barren field / Frozen with snow." It can produce nothing, just as a barren field can yield no crops. It exists without truly giving life to anything. Likewise, a life without dreams is only a half-life, not a fulfilled and happy one.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on