Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

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 if dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Encountering this poem for the first time when I was 12, it immediately became my favorite poem and has remained so. The intent and imagery is still powerful and encapsulates my feelings on the subject. I have always been labeled a dreamer, sometimes in derision, and while some of my dreams have come true, others stay in the amber of hopefulness, this poem a reminder not to give up on them.
The lack of punctuation emphasizes the stark metaphors, which are live things that are now still. The bird is not dead, but wounded and it may recover. A winter field contains plants under the snow, either wild flowers or crops that will blossom when it warms. There is a possibility that the bird may not heal, but die and the field will drown in mud. But that will only happen if dreams are extinguished. Not in the explosive way of Hughes’ A Dream Deferred, but in a quiet, deflated way that seems more final.
Dreams are things that are slippery, are trying to escape, to get away, that’s why one must “hold fast” to them. Not clutch, grab or reach, or even “handle with care” . Anchors hold fast, as does glue. Dreams are in one’s possession and real, but can fade to match the colors of a winter field.
The image of a bird harks back to Emily Dickinson’s Hope is the thing with wings, though she made it sound as if it would alight on one’s shoulder or quietly fly past. Hughes pictures the bird hurt, fluttering, crying out in pain. The winter field is not just cold, but frozen, with joint-numbing wind and ice, empty of trees or fences or any of the Christmas card prettiness. This is not the winter evenings of Robert Frost, with a cup of cocoa at the end. This is the cold weather that feels like it will never end.
Hughes wrote this poem in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, so the message can also be read in a collective way. It speaks a universal truth, whether to an individual or a nation. It is not an uplifting shout, such as the song We Shall Overcome, but a steady positive message that can serve when one is feeling low.
When I first read this poem, I was young and everything seemed possible. My dreams a goal to reach. Middle age has shown me that Life throws up roadblocks, detours and long, dark nights when things seem hopeless. It’s then that dreams are a talisman, a reassurance, a reminder that a modified form of them may still be attainable. No doubt, when I’m in my dotage,  I’m sure dreams will represent yet something else, though I hope it won’t be writ too large with regret.

Poem from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes published by Alfred A. Knopf/Vintage. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

Jackie was pleased to learn that Langston Hughes spent his high school years in her hometown, Cleveland, Ohio.

10 comments on “Dreams by Langston Hughes

  1. annebrooke
    May 24, 2010

    A quiet, meditative piece, and a great start to Monday – thanks, Jackie!


  2. Melrose
    May 24, 2010

    Your love for the poem you chose to write about shines through. A beautifully crafted and cadenced article, Jackie, poetry itself.

  3. Hilary
    May 24, 2010

    What a beautiful start to the week, Jackie! I did not know the poem or the poet, so this is a find. Lovely commentary on it too. I loved the image of Robert Frost and his cup of cocoa! Delighted to find it’s an image of comfort and warmth in the US, just as it is in the UK.

  4. Moira
    May 24, 2010

    I’m vaguely familiar with the poem, Jackie – but I never knew who wrote it.

    A really lovely and deeply felt piece and a great start to the week. Quite an act to follow … (Goes off to worry her own contribution to death …).

  5. rosyb
    May 24, 2010

    Ah Jackie – this was such a moving piece. You could almost bring a tear to this crusty old cynic’s eye.

    What a careful dissection of the poem. I had not come across it before. It’s very powerful.

    I would like to think you’ll be writing a piece on your views on Dreams in your dotage and letting us know how they change.

  6. Nikki
    May 25, 2010

    A wonderful poem. And a wonderful, poetic review too!

  7. Fauquet
    May 29, 2010

    This is a simple and beutiful poem and visibly it comes in resonance with you .
    Love {v}

  8. payush
    June 9, 2010

    this poem was writen by langston huges im doing a paper on him. this is a realy good poem oh and you should read dream differed by him too its pritty good!!!!!!!!

  9. Jackie
    June 10, 2010

    Thanks for your enthusiasm, Payush. I have read “A Dream Deferred”, but find it less hopeful. Good Luck on your paper about Langston Hughes, he was an interesting man.

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