When Dreams Do Not Come True
In the world of creative writing and literature, there are various ways in which authors can express their thoughts and send message to the audience. Some might explain their message in a comprehensible prose and immediately express the main aim of the whole literary work; others might create a piece full of strong visual images which bring the audience to the theme and author’s message (Kennedy and Dana 250). In the last case, the language of the poem tends to be full of creative language devices and symbolism. The meaning of symbolism and literary devices are particularly important for the comprehension of the author and his motives (Kennedy and Dana 250). In this respect, exploration of a couple of works by the same author contributes to a more integral outcome. Therefore, the aim of the present paper is to find common trends in themes, symbols, language and metaphors in three works by Langston Hughes. The chosen poems include “The Weary Blues” (1923), “Lovely death” (1931), “Harlem” (1951). The analysis is conducted in such way that the first poem is analysed in details and compared to other two.
Reading the first line of “The Weary Blues”, the audience instantly gains the feeling of sadness and melancholy embodied in the “drowsy syncopated tune” (Hughes, Rampersad, and Roessel 324). The whole poem tells the story of the loneliness, weariness and despair of an old black pianist. The choice of wording and totality of adjectives describe slow motion and lack of incentives in every movement of the main character, even words of his song, expressing his misfortune are expressed as the matter of fact, and nothing matters to him anymore. He sings that “I ain’t happy no mo’ and I wish that I had died” (Hughes, et al. 324). These are the words of the man who had lost everything in his life, which is hope for the better times to come and dreams to turn true (Gates and Appiah 87). Thus, the main theme of the poem is unfulfilled dream and actual consequences for an individual without any opportunity to change his life towards a better future. In this respect, Hughes referred to the Jim Crow Laws applied during his times. He meant that the dreams of the black population were mainly concentrated on improvement of actual equal rights with the white population of Americans. In this context, the weariness of the old man gains new dimension of interpretation – he is tired of the life-long fight over his natural rights of equal treatment, irrespective of Jim Crow Laws (Dailey, Gilmore and Simon 67). The tone of loneliness and sadness also explains that the old man stayed alone after the struggle of his whole life and eventual failure.
For the first glance, the main theme of the poem “Lovely death” is individual’s desire for death to come. Although the main character is actually asking for salvation embodied in death, he pleads for changes of his helpless position and unequal status of his “suffering flesh” (Hughes, et al.456). In the wider context, desire to change the existing situation can be viewed as a dream for a better or at least different future, if not in this life then in the afterlife (Gates and Appiah 89). Putting this meaning into the wide context of Jim Crow Laws, the author shows that reality of actual segregation is unbearable and that death is desirable already because it would make some change in the unbearable existence, which can is worse than death (Dailey et al. 69). The main difference between the first and the second poems is that the first one refers to the issue of dreams’ failure from the point of lack of hope and final break of an individual, while the second one still shows hope, but that hope is viewed as death/change (Gates and Appiah 112).
The third poem is the most vivid in describing of unfulfilled dreams of abolition of Jim Crow Laws. Since it asks of what happens to a deferred dream. In this case, the author’s answer was that sooner or later the critical point is reached and an individual is either taking extreme actions and follows his dream or he just breaks and eventually gives up his hope and ends up as black pianist, croon and weary (Gates and Appiah 121). Irrespective of the fact that three poems refer to various aspects of unfulfilled dreams, they still explain the same theme and contribute to its integrity. From the developmental perspective, the third poem’s emphasis on the culmination of hope is the initial stage of dreams failure. The first poem explains depth of individual’s despair in conducting hopeless and lonely life of the outlaw, who “Ain’t got nobody in all this world” (Hughes, et al. 324). The second poem contributes to comprehension of why death can be viewed as goodness – it brings change –something life could not accomplish on its own, since it could not abolish Jim Crow Laws in every aspect of human lives. Therefore, the main themes of all three poems are the same, but depict different elements of the global issue of failed dreams of abolishing of Jim Crow Laws and establishment of equality among people (Dailey et al. 72).
Unlike other two poems, “The Weary Blues” is longer and more complex in its structure, and it serves a specific purpose. The length of the poem does not only contribute to the gradual development of the mood of sadness and melancholy, but also to the representation of the complex and hidden symbol of death and weariness in the whole poem. In case of the “Lovely death”, the symbol of death is immediately given and further discussed in the text. It was not hidden behind other images like in “Harlem”, where the image of death was described through the process of decay shown in images of “dry raisin”, “rotten meat” and “heavy load” (Hughes, et al. 602). In this case, the symbol of death is derived from the symbolical meaning of the smaller images. On the other hand, in “The Weary Blues”, death is both mentioned in the text and emphasised by the application of the symbolism of words and phrases. In this context, building of the imagery is stronger and more complex. It is not only pianist’s admitting in the song that he would like to die, but also the author’s use of such phrases as “gwine to quite”, “put ma troubles on the shelf”, “moan with melody” (Hughes, et al. 324). All those phrases contribute to the imagery of death and weariness of life in the most sensual and touchable manner.
Although it can be argued that due to the application of different styles of the presentation of death symbol in all three poems, it serves different purposes (like salvation, end of sufferings and threat of dreams); in the end, it is about individual’s ability to keep the sparking energy for changes alive in him and hope that he and she or their children will in a better world without segregation, have an opportunity to sit where they want and eat out wherever they want (Gates and Appiah 132). That energy is the driving force of human activity towards fulfilment of their dreams, but lack of changes over long time sucks that energy out of one’s body more than Jim Crow Laws themselves, and finally, the person gives up. In author’s perception, death of hope and dreams is worse than true death (Gates and Appiah 134). True death gives salvation and change, while death of hope turns an individual into living dead, who submits into the laws imposed by whites; like an old pianist, who turner into “rock or a man that’s dead” (Hughes, et al. 324). Thus, irrespective of various ways of emphasising the symbol of death in the poems, Hughes never changed his perception of true death being natural, while lack of hope and death of dreams were the worst kinds of torture of human soul (Gates and Appiah 121). In this regard, Jim Crow Laws were acting as poison killing one’s ability to evolve as personality and a member of the American society.
The emphasis on the predetermination of one’s life and inability of any change and improvement in the “The Weary Blues” is supported by use of the literary language full of adjectives and comparisons. The overall tone of sadness, exhaustion and fatality is achieved through application of such adjectives as pale, dull, weary, sad and melancholy. These adjectives contribute to the mood of complete stagnation, which slowly becomes more and more palpable and is finally felt in the last line “slept like a rock or a man that’s dead” (Hughes, et al. 324). The transition from the initially neutral mood of sadness and melancholy to the images of human failure and was conducted through the change of the light in the poem. The initial scene is connected with the “pale dull pallor of an old gas light”, which still keeps some hope in the reader and the main character because some action/singing is taking place and the pianist still can express himself at least in the melody of his song (Hughes, et al. 324). On the other hand, when the song ends – no light is left: “the stars went out and so did the moon” (Hughes, et al. 324).
Another feature of “The Weary Blues” is that the author achieves vividness and comprehensibility of imagery through the antagonism of opposite phenomena or objects (Kennedy and Dana 795). In this case, old man’s ebony hands are contrasted with the ivory key of the piano; thus, it is difficult to understand who the source of the true music is – the deprived black man or the instrument created by the white people for the entertainment of the white people (Gates and Appiah 61). From the point of Jim Crow Laws, this contrast shows that even in that segregated society, black men and women were trying to find ways to express themselves and preserve some of their identity in such things like music, even if it was for an entertainment of the white crowd. On the other hand, this self-realisation was not enough to keep an individual hopeful through years. From symbolical perspective, ebony hands of the black pianist were given at least slight opportunity to enter the white world of music and piano, but outside the entertainment of the white, he was again left alone (Dailey et al. 82).The same device, the author had used in other poems. The contrast of properties contributes to triggering of new emotions and interpretations from the audience, making the piece more emotional and alive, in the end.
In “Lovely death”, flesh is compared to things, in other words, the author showed that, in this life, the living flesh and body of the black man were treated as objects rather than human being; so, in the next life, being any object would be better than being a person in this life; since in the next life, the object would not feel anything at all (Gates and Appiah 54). In “Harlem”, the contrast is between sun and raisin. Although the sun strengthens of all living creatures in the world, over-use of its power on certain object leads to its exhaustion and final degradation; thus instead of fruity grape a raisin appears (Hughes, et al. 602). No matter what was the main theme of the poem, Hughes was always keeping in mind the duality of the position of his people in the society and unnatural essence of Jim Crow Laws and racism in general. This can be viewed in the language he used.
Another essential feature of his works is application of metaphors. Although he uses them in various ways and in different forms (like simile, for instance), they are still present in his poems. In “The Weary Blues”, pianist’s playing of the “raggy tune” was compared with “a musical fool” (Hughes, et al. 324). In this regard, the simile stands for inconsistency between the music, pianist’s mood and the role he was playing for the assumingly white audience. As it was mentioned the pianist was allowed to perform outside Jim Crow Laws but only for the entertainment of the white public, he was like fool showing his soul ache to the crowd of people, who did not even consider him a human being just like them (). In this context, the comparison is full of irony and hidden meaning.
Another simile refers to the man’s sleep, which was compared to the rock. The meaning of this metaphor is in its contribution to the imagery of death and stillness (Gates and Appiah 56). In this case, the pianist was relatively alive when he was performing and had an opportunity to express himself in front of the crowd, although he was denied of his identity, he still could express, but when he was not performing, nothingness was overwhelming him and he was dead as rock (Dailey, et al. 65). While in “The Weary Blues”, metaphor in form of simile is used only twice; in “Harlem”, it is used five times and contributes to the high symbolism of the poem. On the other hand, in “Lovely Death”, the main metaphor is a comparison of death to the change, rather than an actual kill or end.
Overall, from all mentioned above, it can be concluded that, irrespective of different structure of the poems, their length and topics described, they refer to the general theme of failed dreams stolen by Jim Crow Laws from the black Americans. Hughes was not only faithful to the main theme, but also to his specific writing style, which included symbolism, application of colourful language and metaphors. In all cases, he was describing the duality of existence and inequality of opportunities even in such matters as dreaming and subsequent abolishing of Jim Crow Laws.
Dailey, J.E., Gilmore, G.E. and Simon, B. Jumpin Jim Crow: southern politics from Civil
War to civil rights. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2000. Print.
Gates, H.L. and Appiah, A. Langston Hughes: critical perspectives past and present. London:
Hughes, L., Rampersad, A. and Roessel, D.. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New
York: Vintage Books. 1995. Print.
Kennedy, X.J. and Dana Gioia. Backpack Literature and Introduction to Fiction, Poetry,
Drama, and Writing: Dead Men’s Path. 4th ed. London: Pearson. 2012. Print.