Langston Hughes was one of the leading figures of the early 1900s Harlem Renaissance. He wrote to push the ‘Black experience’ beyond segregation and discrimination―from the back of the bus to the front of the anthologies. Today, Hughes is best remembered as a famous poet, though he exhibited a considerable talent for prose as well. He has written several famous poems depicting people whose lives were affected by discrimination, violence, racism, poverty, hopelessness, and several conflicts. His poems are highly infused with uniquely African-American sensibility and themes, and are written in plain tones of American speech. In this post, I’ll share with you 10 of Langston Hughes’s famous short poems.
Langston Hughes’s Famous Short Poems and their Analysis at a Glance
Here are 10 of Langston Hughes’s most memorable short poems:
1. Dreams by Langston Hughes
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Dreams is one of Langston Hughes’s several famous short poems. It is written in an ABCB rhyme scheme and highlights the value of chasing dreams. It presents two situations that revolve around the loss of ‘dreams.’ Hughes has beautifully expressed his ideas about the importance of dreams using figurative language. He first compares a life without dreams―hopes or aspirations―to a broken-winged bird―a living being whose existence is useless and purposeless. Then he compares such life to a barren, snow-covered field―lonely, cold, and isolated.
Thus, dreams are of utmost importance. Without them, life is meaningless and hopeless. Therefore, Hughes urges the readers to ‘hold fast’ to their dreams and never let them die.
2. Harlem by Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Harlem, also known as the ‘Dream Deferred’, is another famous short poem by Langston Hughes. The poem mirrors the mood of many African Americans in the post World War II scenario. Though the war was over but the dream of Blacks—of freedom, equality, and justice—was still being deferred. This ‘deferred dream’ was, in fact, the collective dream of Blacks. The poem symbolically and thematically exemplifies that the lofty expectations Blacks held for themselves and their families became merely a ‘dream deferred.’
Thus, the poem focuses on the frustrations that Blacks experienced due to racial discrimination in America.
3. Black Workers by Langston Hughes
The bees work.
Their work is taken from them.
We are like the bees—
But it won’t last
This poem is very short, easy to understand, and hopeful. African Americans as a minority faced oppression, injustice and racial discrimination in almost every aspect of their life in American society. They did not receive the same position as whites. Black Workers by Langston Hughes portrays the hard work and sufferings of Blacks in a racist society. Hughes compares the Black workers with bees. The bees struggle hard to make honey which is taken away from them and consumed by others. Likewise, the Black workers work hard in farms, factories, plantations etc. But they can’t consume whatever they earn. They are exploited by their white masters who give them meagre wages despite working from dawn to dusk.
There is also a sort of warning in the poem that this won’t last forever. In the future, things will definitely change for Blacks. Though the poem is extremely brief, it gives a compact idea.
4. History by Langston Hughes
The past has been a mint
Of blood and sorrow
That must not be
True of tomorrow.
History is also one of Langston Hughes’s famous short poems. It gives hope for change and a better future for the Black Americans. Hughes tells the reader that though the past is full of bloodshed, sorrow and sufferings, tomorrow will be different. He gives hope to his people that the coming generations of African Americans will not suffer like their ancestors. They will be free individuals and, like white Americans, they will also participate in the betterment of their nation.
The word ‘mint’ in the poem symbolizes the pain, labor, and hardworking that Blacks had to undergo while living in America. The beauty of the poem lies in its brevity.
5. I Continue to Dream by Langston Hughes
I take my dreams and make of them a bronze vase
and a round fountain with a beautiful statue in its center.
And a song with a broken heart and I ask you:
Do you understand my dreams?
Sometimes you say you do,
And sometimes you say you don’t.
Either way it doesn’t matter.
I continue to dream.
I Continue to Dream asserts the importance of dreams and advocates the theme of hope, desire, goal, and trust. In the first two lines of the poem, Hughes describes his dreams with the help of concrete images―’bronze vase’, ‘round fountain’, and a ‘beautiful statue’. All these images show that his dreams are beautiful and delicate, therefore, he must take care of them. He then describes his dreams as ‘ a song with a broken heart’. This refers to Blacks’ dreams of freedom, equality, and opportunity in American society―a song they are singing with broken hearts. The poet tells the reader that it doesn’t matter whether people understand his dreams or not. He is not going to be concerned about them and will continue to dream.
The poem I Continue to Dream suggests that it doesn’t matter what other people think of your dreams. The thing that matters is your ability to dream and your struggle to convert this dream into reality.
6. The Dream Keeper by Langston Hughes
Bring me all of your dreams,
Bring me all of your
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.
One of Langston Hughes’s best and short dream poems , The Dream Keeper asserts that dreams are fragile and in dire need of protection. The speaker is addressing the dreamers―people who have hope and goals of a better future―and telling them to bring all of their dreams to him. He metaphorically calls these dreams “heart melodies.” It shows that dreams are very important and valuable for one’s survival. But they are also delicate and easy to spoil or destroy. Therefore, he invites the dreamers to bring their dreams to him. He will keep them away from the painful outside influences and also protect them from the brutality of the world.
The metaphor ‘too-rough fingers’ refers to the harsh realities of life, all those realities that intend to destroy the hope of the people. Here, Hughes has personified the world as an enemy who discourages others for having a dream.
7. My People by Langston Hughes
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
This short, simple, and charming poem by Langston Hughes proclaims the beauty of African Americans. In My People, Hughes compares his people with the night, stars, and sun and asserts their beauty. He compares the darkness of the night to the faces of his people and describes both as ‘beautiful.’ Then he compares the brightness and twinkling of stars with the eyes of his people. After that he compares the soul of his people to the sun, thus emphasizing the dignity and brilliance of their souls.
In My People, Hughes openly celebrates his pride in Black race and affirms the qualities and significance of his people.
8. Peace by Langston Hughes
We passed their graves:
The dead men there,
Winners or losers,
Did not care.
In the dark
They could not see
Who had gained
One of Langston Hughes’s famous short poems, Peace contemplates the futility of war. The poet captures the irony of war’s goal to achieve peace at any cost. He begins his poem with a solemn tone and reflects on how futile the war is since those involved in fighting for peace are not there either to rejoice victory or mourn defeat. The stark brevity of each line of the poem gives a compact idea that people ought to think whether war is necessary or not. They must keep in mind that the ultimate consequences of war are always terribly destructive at both national as well as individual level. Thousands of soldiers and civilians have to sacrifice their lives in this gruesome and violent process of achieving peace.
Peace by Langston Hughes is a sort of funeral poem. It honors the dead soldiers and also leaves those mourning them with a lot of food for thought about war’s consequences.
9. Sea Calm by Langston Hughes
How strangely still
The water is today,
It is not good
To be so still that way.
Sea Calm is a short poem but contains a deep and powerful message. By saying ‘How still’, the poet is not asking a question to the reader. Instead, he is showing the quantity of the stillness of water. The water is still to a great extent which is something unnatural. The poet says that this stillness of water is strange and will not bring any good. In this poem, the water is a metaphor for the African American community which is inactive and needs change.
The poem contains a message that if Black people remain silent and tolerate injustice with patience, this will bring no good to them. They should speak for their rights and fight for freedom and equality. Otherwise, like the stagnant water, they will stink and no longer be useful because nothing positive can come out of a still body of water or a group of people.
10. Songs by Langston Hughes
I sat there singing her
Songs in the dark.
‘I do not understand
The poem Songs is short but too cryptic. It contains a hidden meaning or message that is difficult to understand. We are not told for whom the poet is singing songs. The pronoun suggests that this person is female. But the pronoun ‘she’ can also be America here. The speaker is singing songs for her ‘ in the dark.’ It means that he is singing songs for his dear nation even in the dark and gloomy circumstances. He is writing poems that depict the sufferings of Blacks. But his nation, its government and law-makers, is unable to understand his words. It means they are not paying any heed to his works and doing anything for their freedom and betterment in America. These are the songs with no words. They are not merely composed to be heard or read, but to be felt. They are meant to feel the pain and suffering of his people.
Songs by Langston Hughes is, indeed, a philosophical poem.