Langston Hughes (1902-1967) is an African-American poet writing between the 1920s and the 1960s. This entire period was one of black intellectual awakening, with the Harlem Renaissance and the Back to Africa movement framing the opening of the period in the 20s, and the Black Arts movement closing it off in the 60s. Hughes was especially well-known as a jazz poet, for he often imitated the structures and patterns of jazz music within the space of his poems.
Hughes, in his poetry, envisions a day when African-Americans will be accorded equal status with the dominant white population in America (for example, this is exactly the sentiment in his poem ‘Let America be America Again’). Though this is Hughes’s dream, he does not always explicitly state it. He disguises this evidently dissenting message within simply-worded verses, as is the case in ‘Dream Variations’.
‘Dream Variations’ consists of two stanzas of varying length. The first stanza consists of nine lines, and the second stanza consists of one less, bringing its total to that of eight lines. Both the stanzas are very similar in terms of their vocabulary, and we see that Hughes has literally liften entire clusters of words from the first stanza o the second one.
In the first stanza, the speaker of the poem longs to fling his arms in the air in the daytime, and to whirl and dance continuously till the day ends. Hence, daytime is established as a time of energetic activity, which evokes a mood of exuberance, both in the speaker and in the readers of Hughes’s poem.
Next, there is a sudden shift in the subject-matter of the speaker in the poem, and from speaking about daytime, the speaker shifts to speaking about the night. What the speaker says is that with the sun gone, the temperature drops in the night-time. And then, under the shade of a tree, the speaker can rest. With nightfall will come darkness, and this resembles him in terms of its colour. Therefore, Hughes implicitly makes it clear that his speaker is an African-American. Hughes ends the first stanza by saying that all the details the poem has provided so far are an outline of his dream.
In the second stanza, once again, the speaker opens by talking about his activities during the daytime. He says that he longs to fling his arms “in the face of the sun.” This is a ‘variation’ (as the title had prefigured there would be such variations within the poem) on the second line of the first stanza. By changing the words “in some place of the sun” to “in the face of the sun”, Hughes brings the poem’s speaker to a greater degree of proximity to scorching heat. However, this heat does not, in any way, undermine the energetic activity of dancing and whirling, that the speaker had also been engaged in earlier. In fact, the speaker asserts that he will continue to dance and whirl “till the quick day is done.” This implies that the day appears short to the speaker when he is engaged in such joyful activity.
As in the first stanza, there is now a shift from description of daytime activity to that of night-time activity. Hughes says that with the coming of evening, the speaker will rest beneath a tall and slim tree. And the night that will arrive as he rests will be black like the speaker himself.
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