Explication of the Poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes
The poem titled “Harlem” by Langston Hughes asks the reader “What happens to a dream deferred” (line 1). “Harlem” is a lyric poem with the subject focused on dreams that are deferred. One could say the speaker of the poem is Langston Hughes himself speaking to anyone who reads the poem. The reader could ask what kind of dream he is referring to in the poem? Is it a dream one experiences while sleeping or daydreaming, no the dream he is referring to has to do with conscious goals, hopes and aims for the future. In “Harlem,” Langston Hughes uses simile, stanza form and diction to illustrate that a dream deferred deflates and irritates the human spirit.
The poem is about dreams, goals for the future and what it means to put them on hold. The poem has also been referred to as “a dream deferred.” Many people work hard to accomplish their dreams, while others put their dreams on hold due to various life circumstances. Harlem” consists of eleven lines broken into four stanzas. The first and last stanza contains one line, while the other two stanzas contain seven and have two lines. The stanza form is somewhat rhythmic, given there are three occurrences of rhyming while the remainder of the poem does notrhyme. Langston Hughes uses many literary elements in the poem. He uses simile, to help paint a mental picture of what it looks like to put one’s dreams on hold. The first simile suggests that the dream may dry up, “like a raisin in the sun” lacking feasibility and vitality while the second simile offers the possibility that the dream may rot, or “festers like a sore” (3-4). Langston Hughes uses the element of diction as he compares a dream put on hold to an explosion. This helps the reader to understand that a dream deferred can simply explode if you do not pursue it.
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The theme of “Harlem” is the deferred dream. One could say it is a theme of decay as early in the poem Langston Hughes suggests that a deferred dream dries up “like a raisin in the sun” or stinks “like rotten meat” (3-4). These increasing disgusting images speak to the ugly truth of putting one’s dream on hold for far too long. Langston Hughes wrote “Harlem” during a time in which African American writers spoke out publicly against racism and oppression. On a broader level, “Harlem” addresses the issue of the American dream for everyone and what possibly happens when the dream is placed on hold. Everyone has a dream of what they hope their life will be like, but most people have had to set their dreams aside because of various circumstances. This poem is about the dangers of putting off those dreams for too long, as the dream will sag “like a heavy load” or it could explode (10).
One could say “Harlem” sheds a different light in chasing one’s dreams. Langston Hughes paints the ugly truth of putting dreams on hold for too long and asks the questions, do they “stink like rotted meat?” (6). His use of simile, imagery and diction to great effect in “Harlem.” Repetition of the word “like” gives the poem a structural unity as he compares the dream to dried up raisins, rotten meat and sticky candy. With each comparison he gives in the poem, answers and explains his initial question “What happens to a dream deferred?” (1). Langston Hughes offers many repulsive possibilities for a dream left on hold, leaving the reader to wonder, is the dream worth pursuing or will it “fester like a sore” (4).
Langston Hughes opens the poem by asking the reader what happens when dreams are deferred. The remainder of the poem helps the reader to consider the different ways a deferred dream may impact their life. His use of simile, stanza form, diction and imagery illustrate that “a dream deferred” deflates and aggravates the human spirit, sagging like a heavy load. By reading this poem, can make one think more consciously about their dreams, pursuing the dreams or what can happen if the dreams are left on hold.
- Hughes, Langston. “Harlem by Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 1994,www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46548/harlem.
- Rochman, Hazel. Langston Hughes: The Harlem Renaissance. Vol. 104, Booklist, 2008.http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46548/harlem