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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, by Langston Hughes, is an eight line poem broken up into two stanzas, each comprising a sentence. The rhyme scheme is ABCB. Hughes utilizes anaphora by repeating words and phrases in the two sentences. Line 1 and 5 are repeated verbatim while lines 2 and 6, and lines 3 and 7, each begin the same way.

The poem begins by focusing the Reader on the subject matter. Dreams, here, does not represent a remembrance of something personal. It refers to the Reader’s hopes and ambitions. In line two, Hughes emphasizes the importance of his topic by warning of their end – their death. Hughes choosing to use the word “if” implies that the death of one’s dreams is conditional. It is not a certainty. The conditionality gives greater weight to line 1’s warning to hold fast.

In line 3 we learn the consequence of the death of dreams. Hughes directs our focus to life itself. In this way, he elevates his subject matter – dreams – to as high a priority as might seem possible. Dreams are tied to life itself. So what happens to life if dreams die? Now that the stakes are understood, he uses a metaphor. Life, without dreams, is as a bird with broken wings. Dreams are as essential to our humanity, according to Hughes, as wings are to being a bird. Without dreams, we are fundamentally broken.

In the second stanza, starting in line 5, we revisit line one.

Hold fast to dreams

Repeating not only the theme, but the exact same admonition, word for word, is intended to provide additional emphasis to the message. In line six though, the message changes. Line 2 was conditional. “If” was a dire possibility. In line 6, we learn what happens when the possibility becomes a reality. Interestingly, when the possibility of losing dreams was conditional, Hughes used the stark word “die” whereas when losing dreams is a certainty, through the use of “when,” then he uses the word “go” instead.

Lines 7 also begins by tying dreams to “life” itself, just as line 3 did in the first stanza. Here the metaphor used is a “barren field.” The purpose of a field is to grow things. Fields are representative of life itself. Barren is a word choice representing the absence of life – a word often applied to women who cannot have children. Hughes is telling us here that dreams were the essential element of life. The inverse of the Speaker’s words here would also then be true – assuming one heeded the advice. Hold fast to dreams and life is a fertile field.

Overall, the poem is the Speaker giving advice in an “if / when” format. The two short stazas present a terrible fate for those who fail to heed the Speaker’s advice.

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