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Poetry Analysis: ‘Dream Deferred’ by Langston Hughes

By Arthur Christopher Schaper Created: September 5, 2012 Last Updated: September 10, 2012
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Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

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?

Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

—Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Langston Hughes, one of the leaders of the early 1900s Harlem Renaissance, pushed the “black experience” beyond segregation and discrimination—from the back of the bus to front of the anthologies. His poems are read and enjoyed in classrooms throughout the country to this day. So pervasive has been the influence of his work, the line, “a raisin in the sun,” became the title of the acclaimed play by Lorraine Hansberry. 

“What happens to a dream deferred?”

“Defer” at its core signals difference and delay, and dreams inevitably contain the germ of tardiness, or otherwise they would not be dreams, but present and apparent realities.

“What happens” suggests that dreams just sit around and wait. Dreams do not exist in and of themselves, but are the product and profession of another, in the febrile mind of a fun man, or the feverish demand of a weak personality.

Dream deferred, the alliteration of noun and verb, announces the start and finish of this poem, the central goal of all that is taking place in this poem.

Yet what does happen to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

A raisin in the sun, rays in the sun—the sun’s rays make the grape more sweet, more tough. Raisins last a long time and do not go bad. 

In the Bible, raisins are a sensuous source of strength: “Stay me with flagons [lit. raisin cakes], comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.” (Song of Solomon 2:5)

Raisins speak of sustenance, restoration, the culmination of great joy; just as time must pass for the grape to dry into a more delicious fruit.

Or fester like a sore— 
And then run?

A sore that festers—what a ghastly sight! This grim image imparts to the reader the lingering pain of a dream that waits to be realized, that waits to take place, that waits and waits, and then it runs. Yet in so sickening a sight, the notion of a “running sore” indirectly implies life and opportunity. A sore that runs is a mess that heals, and in the same vein, a dream deferred will not remain ignored, but will break forth in the life of a man.

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Rotten meat, stinking like the sore, is waiting to be thrown away. Yet meat that rots, meat the stinks, is meat in which new life also lives. For what makes this stench so strong is the new creation of airborne life landing on a piece of flesh. Does the poet see this life? Does he see the seething meat as anything more than an eyesore?

Or crust and sugar over— 
like a syrupy sweet?

Now the poet rhymes meat with sweet. So much time is spent on the sound “ee”—is the dream, then, something to eat? Or does the dream still eat at the dreamer? “Crust,” a covering, protects the dream. “Sugar over” the crust is and does, a symbol both active and passive, that the “dream deferred” is neither lost nor forlorn. The dream gets bigger, gets smaller, but will not be static and stay still.

Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load.

A dream that sags will not be still. The dream will not stay, like the smell, good or bad, that flies invisible from the sore, the meat, or the raisins so sweet. Is this heavy load a burden that goes nowhere? The dream is a saggy dream that does more than “just” nothing—only this bag “justly” sags.

Or does it explode?

Dreams that explode, come to pass, or pass through mind and heart, pressing past the staunch, stench sticking to the walls. The raisin does not explode, except in the mouth of a dry and weary traveler, renews his strength, gives him ease for the journey. The dream is now alive, refused to be put away. Not rotten, not running, not run down, but ready to be read.

“Dream Deferred” draws out the dreams deferred in a reader. When the poet poses the question, the reader goes from wondering to pondering. The poem says a lot, like the rotting meat, teeming with life while seeming lifeless, like the dream that waits to be realized. 

The poem is so sweet, so juicy, unlike the dry raisin, yet just as tasty. The little poem backs a big, bomb punch, “explodes” in the mind, and beckons deferred dreams to fruition.

Arthur Christopher Schaper is an author and teacher who lives in Torrance, CA. He writes several blogs including Schaper’s Corner (aschaper1.blogspot.com).

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  • ted trader

    I couldn’t disagree more with Schaper. The poem should be seen as an allergory to the eventual response by the Black community to Jim Crow and second class citizenship.
    The images of rottem meat and stench along with festering sores are metaphors for deep seated hate and resentment to the establishment. The heavy load, a reference to that hate. Will that load drag on the Black comminty into worse despair or will explode into a revolution, either violent or peaceful is left to the reader.

  • Victoria Carotenuto

    This analysis is more of a literal analysis than a metaphorical one.

    • YouWannaArmWrestle

      Its crap in my opinion!

  • Rick Lee

    I have a couple of questions regarding this poem.

    Why does Langston use 6 questions and only 1 answer?
    How could a civil rights leader use the poem dream deferred in support of their cause?

  • YouWannaArmWrestle

    Yes, this is the worst interpretation ever.


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