James Mercer Langston Hughes’ first book of poetry was ‘The Weary Blues’ which was published in November 1926 by Alfred. P. Knopf. He was born on February 1st 1902, so at the age of 24 his first book was published. Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg were the poets who influenced Hughes. Hughes poems are known for its colourful portrayals of life of the blacks from twenties to sixties. Apart from poetry he also wrote short stories, plays and novels. His works had a great influence on the movement called Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, especially artistically. Hughes told the stories of people in such a way that it reflected their culture, their love for music, suffering and laughter. The language also reflected the African American culture. Hughes died on May 22nd 1967 after developing complications from prostate cancer.
‘Red Roses’ was written in November 1926. He is longing for springtime when the flowers to bloom; the flowers mentioned are tulips and red roses. We might wonder why he is waiting for springtime. Springtime is generally associated with fun and life. But Hughes desire for springtime is for death. He wants to die during spring. Listening to the argument put forth seems sensible. If he dies in winter he would be buried under snow. He is wondering what he would do in winter; he can do nothing as he would be freezing. Now we get to see his point. If he dies in spring his grave will be covered with beautiful flowers like roses and tulips.
‘Cause if I’d die in de winter
They’d bury me under snow’
Snow and winter is generally associated with the death or sadness. Death is already sad and bleak and when it is winter, the sorrow is compounded. Now the poet does not want to die in winter because it is going to be very sad.
‘Ll make a nice coverin’
Fer a gal that’s dead.
These lines suggest that he was battling for life and he wants to stay alive until springtime where transformations happen for the good and it is more colourful all around. Since it was written in 1926 death at that time was an imagination than an actual incident. There is one point of contention in these lines. He has used the word ‘gal’. Is he talking about himself or about some girl he loved?
‘Red Roses’ is a poem with 18 lines in three stanzas. The rhyme scheme in the first and third stanza is ABABCB. There is a small variation in the second stanza. The first and the second line are repeated in all the stanzas with small changes. Spring is personified as Hughes calls it ‘sweet’. The imagery created by these simple lines is very powerful. Instantly one gets to picture a grave covered with snow and the other grave covered with flowers. The obvious choice is the springtime grave and one cannot but agree with the poet. ‘Sweet, sweet springtime’ is the classic example of alliteration. At a time when African Americans were not allowed anything good, Harlem Renaissance encouraged the ‘pride of blackness’. There was a yearning for beautiful things and that is seen in this poem ‘Red Rose’ as the poet wanted even his death also to be colourful.