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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

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A theme can be defined as the message of a work of literature, or the central idea or belief about life conveyed by the writer. In his poem "Trumpet Player," Langston Hughes seeks to convey a message about these three important themes.

One theme of this poem is struggle and suffering. The speaker of the poem uses powerful imagery to communicate a feeling of struggle and suffering to the reader, and this struggle is specific to the experience of African Americans. In the first stanza, the speaker describes the trumpet player's face as possessing of "dark moons of weariness" that are linked to terrible memories of slavery. In this way, the speaker starts the poem with a sense of the fatigue that comes from great suffering. Later in the poem, the speaker compares the effect of music to the effect of a "hypodermic needle," a medical instrument that provides relief in a sharp and painful way; the suffering of the speaker is so great that even painkillers cannot be administered painlessly.

The meaning of music is another theme of this poem. Music and other creative pursuits often have a soothing effect on the artist. In this poem, the musician finds relief and comfort from his suffering in the playing of the trumpet and in listening to the music that comes from his efforts. Music is compared to "honey/mixed with liquid fire" and "ecstasy/distilled from old desire," images which have positive connotations for the speaker. Langston Hughes is widely considered a jazz poet of the Harlem Renaissance, so his connection to music and his appreciation for the healing effects of music is a strong one; the trumpet is a jazz instrument, and even the poem's structure echoes musical forms.

History's impact on the present is another prominent theme of this poem. The speaker of the poem alludes to the slave trade with images like "slave ships," "the crack of whips," and even "a head of vibrant hair." Enslaved African people would have traveled the Atlantic on ships, where they were forced to endure torturous maltreatment and objectification. By using these images, the speaker ensures that the reader understands the source of the suffering African Americans experienced in the past and the ongoing struggle to reclaim their dignity and humanity in the eyes of white society, which carries on into the present.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422

An obvious interpretation of the poem is that the trumpet player has reached the trappings of “success,” yet he is still troubled, perhaps because he feels a sense of alienation from his heritage, as suggested by the taming of his “vibrant” hair, or perhaps because he is burdened by a heritage of oppression. Filling the sucker-sized bar glass with “liquid fire” and distilled ecstasy, however, the music, a glorious part of his heritage, soothes his troubled mind.

The theme also encompasses the collective African American experience apparent in the identification of the musician as “The Negro,” whose heritage includes the pains and degradation of slavery as noted in reference to the “memory/ Of slave ships” and the “crack of whips.” This heritage is also one of resilience and survival, and music has been one of the means for that survival. It was apparent in the chants of slaves attempting to soften the physical pains of the lash, attempting to cloud the sharp memories of loved ones lost in the holds of ships or on the auction blocks; it was apparent in songs pining or plotting for freedom, an “old desire,” still present. The integration of the concrete “trumpet at his lips,” the riff, and the hypodermic needle, and of the abstract “soul” and “Trouble/ Mellow[ing] to a golden note,” affirms that the music is an integral part of the African American experience. So intertwined, it has a transforming effect both, individually and collectively. In Hughes’s philosophy, it is typically a positive effect.

Universal in its appeal, the poem can also be read on a symbolic level. From this point of view, the trumpet player may also be symbolic of the poet and other creative artists. The pen, like the trumpet, has the power to chronicle history and to penetrate humans’ innermost thoughts and feelings; the word and the music can also have a positive effect on human emotions. The musical theme and structure also suggest an integral relationship among the artist, the music, and the experience. Such a relationship is apparent in human experience generally, for music is indeed a universal language touching the elemental feelings of all humanity and creating the possibility for transformation.

Hughes’s poem embodies a symbiosis between music and poetry, for the poem defines music as the poetry of the soul. The poem’s reference to music’s soothing of the soul—the essence of the African American experience and the essence of being—identifies art as an expression of human possibility, affirmation, and resilience.