Harlem Poem Analysis by Langston Hughes

Harlem Poem Analysis:- Harlem is the title of a poem written by Langston Hughes, a black American, that tells the readers about what could happen if one’s dream is delayed or denied.

Because Hughes is a black American, and also because this poem was written around 1951, a time where racism and discrimination towards black people still existed in America, I dare say through his poem, Hughes was trying to describe to the readers about those who were denied of their dreams just because they were black people and a minority in the society full of white people, where their protests or complaints were mostly unheard, and even if they were heard, they were simply ignored or dismissed.

Please note that here, I assume that the speaker is actually the author himself because he was an African-American himself and he was speaking about the consequences of dreams that could not be realized because of the pressure from the outside, like I already stated in the first paragraph.


As for the listener, the author didn’t mention someone specifically, so this poem could be addressed to everyone, and that might be just the author’s intention – to move everyone’s heart through his poem.

Hughes started his poem by asking a simple question, What happens to a dream deferred?, which is actually an open question because anyone may have different answer to it. However, in the next stanza, he offered some answers in the forms of other questions.

By doing this, and not just simply provided us with direct answers, he made us think and try to find our own answers and consider whether what he asked is true or not. In the third stanza, he didn’t offer question and instead just gave us a statement with a touch of uncertainty in it, as the word ‘maybe’ there suggest.

In the last stanza, the author concluded his poem by asking yet another question that actually sounds more like a final statement – a warning – and Hughes even emphasized it by using italics when he wrote the last line.

The imagery composed in the poem also helps pronouncing its meaning. From the visual imagery created by the words ‘fester’ and ‘dry up’, gustatory imagery the words ‘syrupy sweet’ suggest, tactile imagery in the phrase ‘heavy load’, auditory imagery in the word ‘explode’, olfactory imagery in the word ‘stink’ to kinesthetic imagery in the words ‘sag’ and ‘explode’.

The composition in which the author arranged the imagery, from the far away feeling we get from reading the first line of the second stanza to the close feeling we get when we read the last line in the last stanza, it is almost as if the author was trying to include us in his poem, trying to make the readers build the feeling the author felt when he wrote this bit by bit, from being just a spectator on the outside to become a person that almost feels it ourselves when the word ‘explode’ in the last stanza comes to mind, because it is almost as if it is our own heart that explode from the long suppressed desperation and anger of being denied of our rights to realize our dreams.

As in rhyme, sun rhymes with run, meat with sweet, and load with explode. But because they aren’t really in an organized order, I think the rhyme for this poem could be classified as free rhyme. The author used alliteration with d words in ‘dream deferred’ and s words in ‘syrupy sweet’.

As for figurative language, the author mostly used simile with a touch of metaphor at the end. In the first stanza, there is no figurative language, because I think it is really an honest question in denotative meaning, which means there is no hidden meaning behind the question.

But if we look more closely, a dream deferred actually might be a reference to the hopes and dreams that black people held in their hearts but could never be realized because of the discriminative and unsupportive society at the time.

Dry up like a raisin in the sun is a simile for one of the possibilities that could happen if a dream is deferred, and this case, this line, means that the dream will finally die, because raisin in the sun is representing something ugly and lifeless. A grape is a delicious and nice looking fruit, but once it is put under the sun for a long time and loses its water, its shrivels and becomes raisin. Just like a dream, if it is abandoned or denied, without a care and shelter, it also will lose hope and become meaningless.

Fester like a sore is also a simile that means that dreams (that being deferred) will forever nag at us, like a painful reminder, because a sore, other than to indicate a painful site on one’s body, could also represents the feeling of a misery or distress in a person.

Stink like rotten meat is a simile, and I think in this case, it is to emphasize the statement before about fester like sore, because I think that could mean it is not only painful, but also rotten, which means it could not be healed anymore, because you just could not make something that had rotten go back to its previous state. And this could also refer to the vanishing hope of those whose dreams were deferred. In the simile Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet?, if we think about syrupy sweet, surely we will think about something nice and delicious, just like dream that looks so nice. But then it is actually has crusted and sugared over because it has been abandoned for long, and what hidden inside all that sugar will actually tastes bitter and remorseful. After their dream were denied and became a sore, they also lost their hopes and in the process, they would finally see their dreams as a burden that they would like to just put aside, like the simile in Maybe it just sags like a heavy load suggests.

In the last line, instead of simile, the author used metaphor to deliver his message. Or does it explode? Implies that the end, if the dream keeps being suppressed, one day, it will finally explode and destroy itself and/or the person that holds it dear to his heart and this will affect the people around him. It might just explode in the form of emotional, mental, or even physical outburst that could lead to violence. So through this poem, Hughes was trying to warn us about the danger of putting off one’s dream.

When we talk about figurative language and its meaning, we could not help but also talk about the tone the writer used to build his poem. In this poem, the author sounded like he was only talking to himself in retrospective or reflective manner, like he was only contemplating what will happen if one’s dream is suppressed for a long time without an outlet.

The author didn’t sound angry or upset or sad or happy. He only sounded contemplative, like he actually only wondered about that and didn’t really care about the answer.

And by the way he offered his questions, and especially the last and ultimate question in the last stanza, he sounded like he actually already knew the answer to his own questions and thus those questions were actually only rhetorical. So yes, I dare say the tone of this poem is only reflective or contemplative.
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