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Analysis of ‘Brass Spittoons’ by Langston Hughes

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Brass Spittoons

David Little john, author and professor of Journalism wrote Hughes is "the one sure Negro classic, more certain of permanence than even Baldwin or Ellison or Wright. … His voice is as sure, his manner as original, his position as secure as, say Edwin Arlington Robinson’s or Robinson Jeffers’. … By molding his verse always on the sounds of Negro talk, the rhythms of Negro music, by retaining his own keen honesty and directness, his poetic sense and ironic intelligence, he maintained through four decades a readable newness distinctly his own." These words sum up Hughes as a person and his contribution to literature.

In ‘Brass Spittoons’ the poet tries to make a distinction between the drab act of cleaning spittoons and leading a spiritual life. The speaker is addressing a boy to clean the spittoons. Then there is a list of places and it could mean that the poet is meaning all the boys who are engaged in this kind of work in the different parts of the country. Other works that are seemingly looked down upon like cleaning the ‘slime in the hotel spittoons’ are cleaning up the ‘steam in the kitchens’, the ‘smoke in the hotel lobbies’. This kind of cleaning has become a part of his life and the acceptance is complete. There is a tone which indicates that the speaker is capable of more but is resigned to his fate.

The acceptance is complete because he gets a nickel, a dime and sometimes a dollar or two. The list of expenses for the money earned is bigger than what is earned. He has to buy shoes for the baby, pay the rent, buy gin, buy something for his woman and the expenses incurred on Sunday to go to the church. All this comes with the dime and dollars earned from cleaning the spittoons. So, there is one way of looking at this job, with grudge, yet necessary to meet the expenses in life. Then there is another way of looking at it and that is seeing the spittoon as beautiful brass vessel polished like the cymbals if King David’s dancers or like the wine cups of Solomon. It can be polished and this clean spittoon can be placed at the altar of the Lord. When work is seen in this perspective it becomes an offering to god.

‘Brass Spittoons’ is a poem with 40 lines in a single stanza with no specific rhyme scheme; it is a free verse with just one word in some lines.  So the length of each line also varies. Hughes has brought in the lyrical quality by repeating the words like ‘spittoons’ and a set of lines like

Hey, boy!

A nickel,

A dime,

A dollar,

Two dollars a day.

Alliteration where words starting with the same letter are used in a line, is seen in the line “A bright bowl of brass is beautiful to the Lord’ and in ‘Bright polished brass….’.Simile is used when the brass spittoon is compared to King David’s dancer’s cymbals and Solomon’s wine cups.

The tone of poem is grave as it talks about people who do menial jobs. Langston Hughes is an inspirational poet so one always finds the positive side of the most dreary situation and that is seen in ‘Brass Spittoons’ as well. He is requesting these people to look at their jobs as if it is being done for the Lord. Hughes is trying to bring in dignity of labour through the last few lines. However he ends the poem with ‘Com’mere, boy!’ which takes the tone back it that of remorse. But these words do not really take away the positivity brought into the poem in the lines just before that.