Theme for English B by Langston Hughes

‘Theme for English B’ is one of Hughes’ best-known poems. It delves into themes of identity, race, and community. The poet creates a young, twenty-two-year-old narrator who speaks about his own experience as a black man in a primarily white community. 


Summary of Theme for English B

‘Theme for English B’ by Langston Hughes explores the mind of a young black man, setting out to write an assignment for his English class. 

The poem describes the assignment, one page of writing, and the speaker’s apprehension about completing it. He isn’t sure that he’s going to be able to simply sit down and write. He is sure that it’s more complicated than that. His apprehension turns into success as he mulls over his feelings and explores his personality and heritage. He speaks on his similarities to his classmates and his differences, as well as his relationship with the white instructor. 

You can read the full poem here at Poetry Foundation.


Structure of Theme for English B

‘Theme for English B’ by Langston Hughes is a thirty-six line poem that is divided into stanzas of varying lengths. The shortest is only one line long and the longest is twenty lines. There is not a single pattern of rhyme that Hughes used to structure the entire poem, although the poem does contain rhyme. For example, the second stanza rhymes AABB. Other examples include “me,” “free,” and “B” at the end of the poem and “you” and “who” at the end of lines thirteen and fifteen. 


Poetic Techniques in Theme for English B

Hughes makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Theme for English B’. These include but are not limited to personification, anaphora, and alliteration. The latter, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Bessie, bop, or Bach” in line twenty-six and “hear, Harlem, I hear” in line thirteen.

Hughes also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “I like” at the beginning of line sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen.

Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. It can be seen in the third line with “let that page come out of you,” as if the page has agency and the ability to make its own choices. It is described as crafting its own destiny. 


Analysis of Theme for English B

Lines 1-5 

In the first lines of ‘Theme for English B,’ the speaker begins by laying out the assignment he was given. The speaker, who is a young boy, explains in simple terms that he was told to “God home and write / a page tonight”. It could be anything, it just needs to ‘come out of you”. This use of personification makes it feel as if the page is acting on its own, making its own choices. It should be a natural process the teacher suggests. 


Lines 6-14

The third stanza is ten lines long and contains the young speaker’s thoughts about the possibility of writing. He wonders if it’s likely that its “that simple” to write. He gives the reader bit of his background. The speaker is a young man, twenty-two years old, black, born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He’s the only coloured student in his class. These facts set him apart from those around him. They make him wonder if he will be able to write. 


Lines 15-19 

The next stanza of ‘Theme for English B’ is shorter, only five lines long. It expresses his uncertainly about where he is in life and how that position relates to those around him. It’s hard to know when you’re young what’s true and what isn’t. But, he knows the basic facts. He’s there and he can “feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you”. This place calls to him and jumbles the language making it hard to tell who is speaking and what they are referring too. He is at a place in his life where he is just starting to understand who he is and what role he has to play.


Lines 20-27

In the next set of lines, the speaker compares the life he lives with that of his classmates. They are similar in a number of different ways, the primary ones being reading, learning and understanding life. He is not that different where he doesn’t like “the same things other folks like who are other races”. But, he adds, he is different in an important way. The page that he writes will “not be white”. 


Lines 28-40

The speaker comes to understand in the last lines of ‘Theme for English B’that there are different parts of himself that are all important in their own way. The page he writes, a metaphor for the life he is going to live, will be influenced by “you, instructor”. This person is white, so it will have their influence as well as that of New York and Harlem. 

He thinks over his relationship to “you,” the instructor, and wonders about how much a part of one another they are. Sometimes they don’t want to be part of one another’s lives or stories, but they are “that’s true!” He learns from his white instructor and suggests that maybe they learn from him as well. This might be the case even though they are “older—and white— / and somewhat more free”. 

The poem ends with the line “ This is my page for English B”. He set out to write and let land on the page what was “true,” as the instructor suggested. The assignment completed itself. 

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