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Analysis of ‘Harlem’ by Langston Hughes


James Mercer Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902. Hughes became very popular at a very young age. His writing is colourful and varied. His experiences have contributed to his writing. Before reaching 12 years he had already travelled and lived in six different American cities. When his first book was published he had already worked as sailor, doorman at a nightclub in Paris, waiter, cook and a farmer. He had visited places like Mexico, Italy, France, Holland, West Africa, the Canary Island and the Azores. This treasure house of experiences is reflected so well in his poems. He was always respected by all but that did not deter him from being and feeling for his people. He spoke for the millions and that is his greatness.

‘Harlem’ is a poem about a deferred dream. Now deferred dream in prose seems simple as it only indicates that the dream has been put off or delayed and nothing much need to be said about it. But in this poem Hughes has given it a lot of importance saying ‘dream deferred’ and then it throws open so many worries. What follows is a word picture of how delayed dreams can be depicted. The first picture of a deferred dream is dried up grapes which are raisins. Raisins are sweet but are not succulent as the grapes. We cannot bite into it and takes its juice. Deferred dreams might carry some sweetness within but nothing good comes out of it.

The next two lines compares deferred dreams to an irritating sore. While raisins did not seem too bad the sore is a bad scene. It is a wound which has blood and pus and the blood is oozing and running down. Are the postponed dreams like that? Are they painfully reminding us that the dream has not become a reality? There is pain in this comparison. In the next line he compares it to a rotten meat. Till then he was giving the readers a visual comparison and now he brings in sense of smell. Are deferred dreams incapable of being revived? Do they rot away leaving only a stink within us? From giving a strong comparison of rotten meat he mellows down to crust or sugar over sweet syrup. When sweet syrup is put off for too long, shelved or refrigerated, a crust is formed. Under that the syrup remains but is not seen because of the crust. Does the the dream form a crust when it is put away for too long?

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Dreams that are postponed ‘sags’ is what he says next. Sagging happens when there is an overload or when it is too old, like sagging of skin. Maybe, the deferred dreams burden in the heart. Have these dreams lost their tautness and incapable of getting back to its original form?  In the lines that leads to the last line there is some form of the deferred dream retained in the mind but in the last lines he ‘explodes’ it.  Hughes asks if the deferred dream just explodes and is lost for ever.

‘Harlem’ consists of eleven lines in four stanzas. It is a free verse with six questions and one declarative sentence. The first and the last stanza have only one line. Some lines have words with just one syllable while there other lines with multiple syllable words. Some lines rhyme while some do not.  There is no consistency in the verse yet it is a wonderful word picture. The whole poem is filled with imagery created with many similes. Deferred dreams are like raisins, sore, rotten meat, crust or sugar, heavy load. ‘Harlem’ was later called ‘Dream Deferred’. Hughes is referring to the dreams of the Harlem community and was hoping that their dreams don’t get deferred.