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.
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.