“Dreams” by Langston Hughes is a two-stanza poem with an ABCB rhyme scheme that highlights the value of “dreams” by presenting two situations that revolve around the loss of those “dreams.” The first stanza reflects on the possible death of dreams in an “if” scenario, which indicates “dreams” do not have to “die” since they can be nurtured. In fact, to Hughes, they should be nurtured if a person desires to “fly” above the common aspects of life to something more adventurous and breath-taking. However, the second stanza references a more certain turn that “dreams” will take, in regard to “when dreams go.” In this wording, there is no choice in the matter since “dreams” will “go,” no matter what a person does, but the harshness of life once that departure occurs makes “[h]old[ing] fast to” them advisable.
This grand importance of “dreams” is the focal point of the poem as Hughes advises the reader to never willingly let them go. The full poem can be found here.
The first half of the first stanza wastes no time in setting the concept of “dreams” into a front-and-center position so that the reader has no doubt what the primary aspect of the poem is. This concept is given that focal-point importance in a manner that also allows the reader to quickly grasp what the point of this poem is. Hughes is not providing a reflection of “dreams,” but rather affording his audience advice in regard to those “dreams.” While interacting with the reader in this fashion can be seen as informal, it is effective in showcasing what Hughes believes is the importance of “dreams.” They are so important to him, it seems, that chancing that their meaning would be lost in reflection is not worth the delay or formality. Instead, Hughes plainly states his meaning in the very first line by telling the reader to “[h]old fast to dreams.”
The second line of this stanza, once more, does not waste time in fancy language or subtle meanings. Rather, Hughes goes into the reasoning for his advice by beginning his “if dreams die” explanation. Two things are noteworthy in that “if dreams die” idea. For one, “dreams” are still revealed to be of upmost importance as Hughes does not substitute them for a pronoun, although grammar rules would allow “they” to be used in place of “dreams” with no confusion about what “they” refers to. The choice to use “dreams” as a repeated noun speaks of their significance, as if they are too relevant to the topic and point to be downgraded into a pronoun.
The other aspect worth noting in the “if dreams die” line is that Hughes does not say “when dreams die,” but “if,” which indicates that such a fate is only a possibility. This creates rationale for delivering the advice since people, to Hughes, can avoid such a fate.
Once more, the directness of the language is key for this pair of lines since Hughes does not mince words as he ventures into his belief of what happens at the demise of “dreams.” Instead, he focuses directly on one of the grandest concepts that can be referenced, which is “[l]ife.” By labeling such a large notion as “[l]ife” as being impacted by losing “dreams,” Hughes demands the reader’s attention in a clear, unornamented manner since every reader should have a real interest in the subject. Only once that large concept is in focus and the reader’s concentration is grounded does Hughes direct his attention to a metaphor by claiming that “[l]ife is a broken-winged bird [t]hat cannot fly.”
Again, two things can be uncovered within this pair of lines. The first is that once “dreams” are lost, pronouns are viable options to use in substitution for nouns as “[t]hat” is replacing “bird.” As this variation only occurs once “dreams die” and “[l]ife” becomes “broken-winged” and damaged, it could represent the lessened quality of “[l]ife” as a result of “dreams” fading.
The other detail at play within Lines 3 and 4 is that the “bird” representing “[l]ife” after “dreams die” “cannot fly.” Hughes does not say that the “bird” will not “fly” or has trouble with the prospect. That “bird” has lost the ability to “fly,” indicating that to Hughes, the only way to elevate oneself into higher and more adventurous aspects of “[l]ife” is through “dreams.” Without them, “[l]ife” is more two-dimensional, as if a person cannot move beyond an ordinary level of existence.
The second stanza uses repetition to once more draw the reader back to the advice of “[h]old[ing] fast to dreams,” and to repeat that same line twice in an eight-line poem speaks to how important Hughes believes the advice to be. Stating that guidance in such a manner means that 25% of this poem is represented in those combined four words, and only something of vast value would merit such a high percentage of the literary work. It is also worth noting that the word, “dreams,” is once again irreplaceable in regard to pronouns, reinforcing the value of “dreams” to Hughes.
Repeating this “[h]old fast” concept also succeeds in grounding the reader yet again in the same foundational idea. The design makes the stanza feel like a reset with the same baseline concept of clinging “to dreams.” This time, however, Hughes steps away from the uncertain phrasing of “if” in connection with that baseline advice, but rather the certainty of “when dreams go.”
The irony is that while “when” is a more solid concept than “if,” Line 6’s verb, “go,” is gentler than the first stanza’s “die.” The gentler tone of “go” for “when dreams” vanish indicates a more gradual and easy process, something that can simply happen over time to allow for acceptance or expectation of the departure. For “dreams” to “die,” contrastingly, the event would be harsher and more aggressive, potentially with less time to adjust to the change. That kind of harshness is only an “if” situation to Hughes, which hints that such a horrible ending to “dreams” could be the product of a more deliberate action than time passing. Rather, it could be giving up one’s “dreams” or deciding to let them go as a voluntary choice. When that happens, the separation is much harsher than should the person chase those dreams as long as they can—until they “go” in their own time.
Regardless of how they depart, Hughes is certain that “dreams” do vanish, as is indicated in his choice of “when” for Line 6. To Hughes then, even if the reader “[h]old[s] fast to dreams,” the battle will eventually be lost, though Hughes suggests the reader cling to those “dreams” just the same.
At the end of the first stanza, Hughes labels “[l]ife [as] a broken-winged bird [t]hat cannot fly” in connection to “if dreams die.” However, “when dreams go,” “[l]ife” becomes something much more dramatic. The concept of “fly[ing]” is no longer the main issue with the lost “dreams” because the entirety of the world around the person who has lost the “dreams” has altered in a horrific way. The complications do not just come in personal inconveniences or lowered perspectives, but a scenario where things have grown cold and decayed.
Specifically, “when dreams go,” the person to lose those “dreams” will endure an existence that is as bleak and hopeless as “a barren field [that is f]rozen with snow.” This destroys the concepts of growth, warmth, and brightness that come with a thriving lifestyle, and it indicates that once “dreams” escape, “[l]ife” loses meaning and potential.
Overall, Hughes has constructed two stanzas that are both grounded in the advice that the reader “[h]old fast to dreams,” and the results of the “if” and “when” concepts that are explored separately lead to horrific circumstances of lessened lifestyles. To Hughes, “dreams” will vanish one day, meaning that “[l]ife” will eventually lessen in quality, but the impact “dreams” have still make them worth cherishing.
About Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes was one of the most famous American poets of all time. In addition to his poems, this Missouri-born writer also penned numerous plays and books, becoming a stand-out name among 20th century authors. Even though he died of cancer in the 1960’s, he has remained a relevant name in the literary world through works that embrace themes and culture of the time in which he was writing. This situation has allowed him not only to be relevant as a writer after his passing, but as a piece of history.