‘To a Dead Friend’ juxtaposes images of the world’s lively beauty with the sorrow of someone who’s grieving the loss of a loved one. Hughes deepens the sadness by creating contrasting images and symbols that fail to kindle happiness or hope within the speaker. The poem is a grave but sobering impression of how excruciating heartbreak can permanently mar one’s outlook on life and the world around them.
To a Dead Friend Langston HughesThe moon still sends its mellow lightThrough the purple blackness of the night; The morning star is palely bright Before the dawn.The sun still shines just as before; The rose still grows beside my door, But you have gone.The sky is blue and the robin sings; The butterflies dance on rainbow wings Though I am sad.In all the earth no joy can be; Happiness comes no more to me, For you are dead.
Explore To a Dead Friend
‘To a Dead Friend’ by Langston Hughes is a short, emotionally charged poem that addresses the disparity between grief and the indifferent, sometimes painfully cheerful world surrounding it.
In ‘To a Dead Friend,‘ the speaker mourns the loss of a dear friend. Their poignant sorrow stands out in contrast to seemingly everything around them. The first stanza opens with a solemn but beautiful image of sunrise that’s referenced again in the second stanza. Yet, like the “rose” growing beside the speaker’s door, these things do not bring them joy when all they can think about is their lost friend. All the world’s abundant joy — from blue skies, singing birds, or butterflies that “dance on rainbow wings” — is not enough to cure the speaker’s intense sadness. And the final stanza is no less dreary as they confess that such a tragedy has robbed all the joy and happiness from their world.
Structure and Form
‘To a Dead Friend’ is a four-stanza poem written in free verse with no definite meter. The poem’s rhyme scheme is ‘AAAB’ (stanza one) and ‘AAB’ (stanzas two through four), with a chain rhyme occurring in the last lines of stanzas one/two and three/four. The rhyme scheme is also crucial to maintaining the poem’s grieving tone: all the lines that express beauty and life rhyme with one another (the first three/two lines of each stanza), but the final line does not. It’s those final lines that illustrate the speaker’s deep sadness, their discordance with the other lines falling like a dull sigh by the speaker as they remember why they’re depressed in the first place. Creating a despondent cadence that snuffs out the joyful images in the first three stanzas.
‘To a Dead Friend’ uses a number of images to emphasize the dissonance of their grief with the world around them. In the first stanza, these images deal mainly with light (“mellow light,” “purple blackness,” “paley bright”) and symbolize the endurance of luminance in the night. A hopeful sentiment that’s further contrasted in the second stanza, where Hughes introduces more optimistic images and symbols. Their disenchantment with the sun (a symbol for warmth and light) and a rose by their door (symbolizing beauty and love) signal all the further ideals that the speaker has lost interest in due to the death of their friend. The blues skies in the third stanza (as opposed to tempestuous ones that might better reflect the speaker’s mood) underscores the growing incompatibility between the poem’s opposing motifs of grief and happiness. And even as the “robin sings”/”butterflies dance” (two striking images of life), the speaker is unable to shift their mood.
In the final stanza, the speaker uses a bit of hyperbole to emphatically assert: “In all the earth no joy can be.” A statement that accentuates the fact that the speaker no longer finds joy where they might’ve before. Even personifying “happiness” as a figure or thing that no longer “comes” to them.
The moon still sends its mellow light
Through the purple blackness of the night;
The morning star is palely bright
Before the dawn.
In the first stanza of ‘To a Dead Friend,’ the speaker opens with a deceptively hopeful image: the moon shining as it lingers in the twilight, the sun about to rise. Images of light are important to this stanza. There’s the moon’s “mellow light” and the sun’s “paley bright” glow. Such imagery would suggest that, despite the “purple blackness of the night,” dawn is still resolutely on its way. But the dawn — typically a symbol of new beginnings and hope fulfilled — doesn’t bring either to the speaker.
The sun still shines just as before;
The rose still grows beside my door,
But you have gone.
In stanza two, the use of the word “still” in the first two lines draws attention to the juxtaposition of images of joy with the speaker’s grief. Which only makes their expressions of despondency (“But you have gone”) in the last line all the more acute. The rose’s location is also crucial as it’s not some distant object the speaker hardly sees but one right beside the door to their home, making it as unavoidable as the still-shining sun. Despite the shining sun and flowers at their door, the speaker finds no comfort in these unmissable symbols of the beauty that still exists in the world.
The sky is blue and the robin sings;
The butterflies dance on rainbow wings
Though I am sad.
The third stanza continues this stream of observations. Though the prior stanza was about highlighting the persisting beauty of the world, this one focuses on the radiant life that frets about the world. The sky is its most idyllic color, a robin (symbol for a variety of sentiments and so an apt one for life’s vivaciousness), and even the butterflies are dancing on their “rainbow wings.” Yet all these colorful and merry images of life have the opposite effect on the speaker, or at the very least fail to move them from their sorrow.
In all the earth no joy can be;
Happiness comes no more to me,
For you are dead.
The final stanza of ‘To a Dead Friend’ does away with all the imagery to state the speaker’s conundrum of the soul plainly. The death of their dear friend has sapped all joy from the Earth — a powerful use of hyperbole that’s bolstered by the previous stanzas’ firm recitation of their unconquerable grief. While the personification of happiness as a thing that must visit its receiver drives home the loneliness and isolation the speaker also has to face in their grief — separated as they are not just from their lost friend but also the happiness of the rest of the world.
The poem paints a depressing but terribly honest illustration of the speaker’s anguish. It doesn’t caution against those feelings, though, nor is it foolishly indulgent of them. Instead, the poem’s happiness-draining theme is a frighteningly accurate depiction of the grief that follows the death of someone you care about. The theme of the poem can be understood to be that such loss is many ways reality altering for those experiencing it.
The poem is an expression of the way grief can drain all the joy to be found in life. Like the blues, which found its way into much of Langston Hughes’ works, the poem is meant to convey these feelings of intense sadness to the reader intimately.
An important American writer who led the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, documented through his poems the effects racism had on Black Americans. Shedding light on both the ugly ways they’d been abused while also providing a vision of how to overcome them through art. As such, this poem may very well be addressed to anyone, from a close friend or to a complete stranger who died at the hands of racist white supremacists. Hughes was no doubt aware of the lynchings and crimes of violence occurring in the 1920s when this was written.
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