Poems by Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes

As poets Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes differed greatly, not only temporally and geographically, but also in respect to the life situations that each poet drew from when creating their poems. Both poets harbored revolutionary thoughts and used their poems to express these thoughts to a wider audience. This essay will present general impressions toward each poet’s work, and will assert that despite their differences, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes shared an essential common trait.

Both poets spoke out against the hypocrisy and oppression that they witnessed and faced during their lifetimes, albeit in very different ways. Emily Dickinson lived a privileged life from a financial perspective. She was born into a wealthy Massachusetts family headed by prestigious lawyers and educators, and enjoyed a stellar education, much more advanced than many men had access to at that time in history, at Amherst College where her father served as treasurer (Wolff 261). Emily Dickinson spent the majority of her life in Massachusetts, in the house she was born in, and never had to work (Wolff 261). The general impressions of Emily Dickinson’s work are that it contains a reticence that hides a sharp and astute intellect and subversive soul. Although she lived the life of recluse, she missed nothing, and wrote critically about the society she lived in. Emily Dickinson’s intellectual horsepower surpassed many minds of her generation; however her solitude, reclusive bent and shy demeanor meant that few of her poems saw the light of day during her lifetime (Wolff 261). Emily Dickinson’s poetry covers the gamut of human experience – death, loss, love – and many of her poems contain a penetrating intellectual analysis and insight into the human condition.

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An example is Because I Could Not Stop for Death. This poem speaks to the human view of death as something to be avoided and feared, rather than a natural part of life: “Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me – The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality” (Dickinson 1). Emily Dickinson describes the busy social obligations of life that melt in the face of our own demise and render themselves largely meaningless: “We slowly drove – He knew no haste, And I had put away, My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility” (Dickinson 1). Emily Dickinson’s keen eye saw the hypocrisy and ludicrous avoidance of death she encountered in her everyday life, and wrote about it in a quiet yet penetrating way. Another example of this exists in Emily Dickinson’s Much Madness is Divinest Sense.

This poem reads as a scathing indictment of the false and arbitrary nature of the human social construct, and largely defines that which is deemed mad as having the most meaning when compared to that which is deemed socially acceptable, whether or not it makes sense. In this poem Emily Dickinson describes society in the most deplorable terms as consisting mainly of conditioning and mob rule: “Much Madness is divinest Sense – To a discerning Eye – Much Sense – the starkest Madness – `Tis the Majority, In this, as All, prevail” (Dickinson 2). Much Madness is Divinest Sense also provides some insight into Emily Dickinson’s treatment at the hands of those she confided her genius in: “Assent – and you are sane – Demur – you`re straightaway dangerous – And handled with a Chain” (Dickinson 2).

This poem speaks to quiet radicalism and staunch non-conformity that punctuated much of Emily Dickinson’s work; she remained a singular soul on the fringes of her society, and thus her poems became an important outlet for her own distinctive voice and distinctive view of the world. The general impressions of Langston Hughes’s poems Langston Hughes also sat comfortably in the fringes of his society, and wrote about racism, although his work tends to be much more effusive and openly critical. Langston Hughes, by contrast to Emily Dickinson, travelled the world and spent extended periods of time living and working in Cuba, Mexico, Paris and Russia (Rampersand 497).

Being black in the United States during the early part of the twentieth century, Langston Hughes’ family lacked the financial means to support their son, and although he did gain access to a formal education at Columbia University and Lincoln University, he struggled with poverty for much of his life (Rampersand 497). Many of Langston Hughes’ most famous poems deal largely with his personal experience of being a black man during an extremely racist period of American history, and his work deals with his ensuing feelings of separation and isolation. Langston Hughes’ poem Theme for English B speaks to this condition: “I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like the same things other folks like who are other races. So will my page be colored that I write? Being me, it will not be white. But it will be a part of you, instructor. You are white– yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. That’s American” (Hughes 5). Another example is Harlem, and the poignant rhetorical question that opens the poem: “What happens to a dream deferred?” (Hughes 3).

Harlem describes the pain and anguish of a generation of human beings denied access to fundamental human rights on the basis of pigmentation. The poem is distinctive in that as it progresses, it describes a range of human emotions in response to oppression: “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?” (Hughes 3) In these lines the reader witness many potential reactions: the phrases “dry up” and “fester” might refer to suicide, depression, or addiction (Hughes 3). “Stink” may refer to death (Hughes 3). “Sags like a heavy load” speaks to the weight of oppression and its impact on the lives of the millions who endure it (Hughes 3). Interestingly, the poem ends with the image “or does it explode?” (Hughes 3).

Hughes ends the poem with a violent image, that may refer to anger, and in many cases may be the harbinger of the racial rebellion that eventually took place in the United States forty years after the poem was written during the Civil Right movement. As poets, both Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes Emily Dickinson wrote about the social mores at work during their lives, and while each poet lived an extremely different life, both drew from personal experience and observation to write critical responses and commentaries on the worlds they lived in. Although Emily Dickinson lived as a recluse, she wrote penetrating insights into the society she lived in. Similarly, Langston Hughes wrote about the hypocrisy of racism. Both poets tailored their revolutionary thoughts to be expressed through their poems, and used their creative talents to criticize the society they lived in.

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. Reading for English 2. Mark Connelley and Joseph Trimmer, eds. Oxford, U.K.:Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

Hughes, Langston. Reading for English 2. Mark Connelley and Joseph Trimmer, eds. Oxford, U.K.:Oxford University Press, 1995.

Print. Rampersand, Arnold. “Hughes, Langston (1902-1967).” Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature: Volume One. George B. Perkins, Barbara Perkins and Phillip Leininger, eds.

New York: Harper Collins, 1991. Print. Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. “Dickinson, Emily (Elizabeth) (1830-1886).” Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature: Volume One.

George B. Perkins, Barbara Perkins and Phillip Leininger, eds. New York: Harper Collins, 1991. Print.


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