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The city, Harlem, the source of hope and a beck of light for the black community during the 1920’s and 30’s, served as a fountain of inspiration as the artistic talent and aspirations flowed from the streets of the neighborhoods. The Great Migration drew hundreds of thousands of African Americans to the city. The Harlem Renaissance developed out of the transformations that had taken place in the African American society ever since the abolition of slavery. The spotlight from those Harlem lamps and stage lights was the illumination of a people that was never supposed to flicker and go out, but with the 1929 crash of the stock market and the beginning the Great Depression, the lights fell dark on most of America. The dream for Harlem and its great people was overdue, but it was forced to lay undeveloped until it “explodes” into a movement that changed America. “Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes is the poetic manifestation of the feelings of a people, as a dream they all once shared slips away, only to become the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement later.
Hughes piece was originally entitled “Harlem,” in 1951, and then later re-titled “Dream Deferred”, leading us to believe that Harlem was his original source for inspiration, but the poet later decided to let his audience perceive the piece in a more general sense. The poem leaves it up to the reader to settle on what dream is being questioned in the first line, “What happens to a dream deferred?” A dream is a goal in life, not just the wonderings of the subconscious during the night. Every dream is important and distinctive to each individual or group and can become a powerful thing, making the authors position very clear that if this power and potential is not realized it can hold grim consequences.
Literary devices are implanted throughout the poem to achieve an effect key to this poems nature and the way its author wanted his audience to experience the images. Hughes relies for the most part on alliteration and similes. Similes using the word “like” compare the outcome of the dream deferred of the first line to other suggested outcomes: the drying up of a raisin “like a raisin in the sun,” the festering of a sore “like a sore,” the stinking of rotten meat. The similes don’t stop there, they actually run the span of the first stanza to create balance, more on that later. More examples of similes are found in lines 6,8 and 10,”like rotten meat,” the crusting of a old syrup “like a syrupy sweet.”, and the sagging of a heavy load. Through each question the narrator offers a likelihood of each negative effect. Each question in the first stanza uses similes to draw the attention to the comparison, which is projected through visual imagery throughout the poem. “Or fester like a sore, And then run” is such a strong visceral image to cause one to almost feel the torment the speaker suggests with the word “fester”. Hughes also brings into play anaphora in the second line of the poem and throughout the piece. The speaker repeats a word or phrase at the beginning of a clause or another group of words to draw his audience’s attention to the similes mentioned before. Anaphora conveys importance and a sense of balance throughout the poem as mentioned earlier. The words that are repeated are does it; “Does it dry up”, “Or does it explode” and like; “like a syrupy sweet”, “like a heavy load”. The authors use of literary devices are aimed at trying to get the reader to see and feel the dream as he experienced the restlessness of indication.
Say a dream is left unfulfilled in the mind, perhaps it will “â€¦fester like a sore, And then run” (lines 4&5). A dream that festers is an infection, an illness of impatience and disappointment that may spread to other parts of the mind and cause one to, striking out at those who are slowing the realization of that dream. Maybe a dream cast away is much like meat that rots if unclaimed and uncared for. A dream much like meat, it can become rancid and give off ghastly odors if not used within a finite span of time. A dream can “crust and sugar over, Like a syrupy sweet” (lines 7&8). If honey is left idle for a number of months, you may discover that an unappetizing crusty has gathering at the mouth of the spout. From lack of use a dream, much like honey, can form a hard crust, and that hard material that is no longer useful gets tossed away. The dream idle solidifies into an un-malleable essence of thoughts that have alienated themselves from the aspiration they once were, and formed barren disparaging thoughts that are coated over with anguish, distrust, rage, and disgust.
The second stanza is not an inquiry but simply a suggestion: perhaps the dream, “just sags, like a heavy load” (line 10). A heavy load causes one to move uneasily, makes one awkward as they struggles to maneuver under the weight. A dream unaccomplished may grow to be intense to bear, since it asphyxiates on one’s psyche with revolving thoughts like “what might have been,” “I guess I’ll never know,” and “what if.” Each and every one of these futile feelings that drift back and forth between past and present weigh heavily on the consciousness that has had to defer a dream. This pressure under the proverbial weight of failure could lead to hopelessness and psychological exhaustion.
Hughes in the last stanza returns to the question once more, however this time in place of a simile, he bring into play a metaphor of an explosion. But the real question here is what explodes? The destruction from a bomb cause immense devastation. If all the other suggestions of a dream deferred are bad, with a few worse than many, then the final suggestion is the worst. If dreams are deferred and held back then like any other material pressure builds, until that trapped dream can’t be held back and then that dream might “explode” (line 11). Explode with his despair or maybe even hate, or quite possibly an idea a million times greater than the original. Hughes was alluding to the Civil Rights Movement that he saw on the horizon and its explosion on to the scene only shortly after this poem was published. The dreams of Hughes and the people of Harlem were deferred, but with an explosion of violence love and tolerance their dream was finally realized. Maybe a dream does rot or sag or even just fester and run, or maybe just maybe it explodes into something much greater than ever dreamed before. Maybe that’s what happens to a dream deferred.
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