Summary, Analysis, and Themes in "Dreams" by Langston Hughes

Ian Matthews, Beth Hendricks, Jenna Clayton
  • Author
    Ian Matthews

    Ian Matthews has taught composition, creative writing, and research at the college level for more than 5 years; he's also been an Instructional Designer for more than 3 years. He holds a Master's of Education in Learning and Technology from Western Governor's University and a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University.

  • Instructor
    Beth Hendricks

    Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

  • Expert Contributor
    Jenna Clayton

    Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

Explore the poem “Dreams” by Langston Hughes. Read the text of “Dreams” and study a summary and analysis of Hughes’s poem. Understand possible themes of “Dreams," the purpose of its figurative language, and its opening line, "Hold fast to dreams." Updated: 09/28/2021

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"Dreams" by Langston Hughes

Published in the May 1923 issue of a magazine called The World Tomorrow, "Dreams" by Langston Hughes is a short poem of 8 lines with simple imagery but a strong message. Like many Langston Hughes poems, "Dreams" encourages the reader to hold on to their dreams and explains why it's so important to do so. Hughes, one of the most famous poets of American literature's Harlem Renaissance and the first African-American to make a living as a writer and speaker, explored the theme of dreams in much of his work. "Dreams" is a perfect example. Read the full text of the poem before moving on to some analysis of the themes and devices Hughes uses.


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.

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"Dreams" Summary

"Dreams" by Langston Hughes is very short: just two quatrains (a stanza of four lines) for a total of eight lines. In both quatrains, Hughes repeats his main message: "Hold fast to dreams." By "dreams," Hughes means bigger goals, aspirations, and hopes for a person's life rather than dreams at night. After the repeated line, each quatrain includes an image to show what life is like without dreams. In the first, life without dreams is a "broken-winged bird that cannot fly." In the second, life without dreams is "a barren field frozen with snow." The poem's simplicity, brevity, and straightforwardness underscore the message and make it all the more clear.

Literary Devices in "Dreams"

In his poem "Dreams," Langston Hughes uses several poetic devices. Langston Hughes' poems, including Dreams, frequently use specific styles to mimic everyday speech; he uses common imagery and metaphor that are easy to understand, and repetition drives the point home. Read on for some analysis of these devices in "Dreams" by Langston Hughes.

Style and format

The style and format of "Dreams" reach a broad audience. Because it's so short, it's easy to remember; as a result, the message comes to the forefront and practically anyone who can read can understand it. The poem's brevity also implies a sense of urgency. Holding on to dreams is so important that there's no time for more developed or elaborate imagery, or even more than eight lines.

"Dreams" also follows a simple rhyme scheme: ABCB DEFE. The second and fourth lines of each quatrain rhyme. This has a couple of effects:

  • Rhyme makes the lines, and thus the poem, easier to remember
  • Rhyme pushes the language of the poem in a more melodic, jazzy direction appropriate for the culture and "sound" of the Harlem Renaissance time period

These two elements - rhyme and brevity - make the poem an urgent, focused exhortation to hold fast to dreams.


A snowy, barren field, like life without dreams

A snowy barren field

Even in such a short poem as "Dreams," Langston Hughes creates some striking imagery. The two major images at play in "Dreams" are:

  • A broken-winged bird that cannot fly
  • A barren field frozen with snow

These images aren't complicated; they're powerful in their simplicity. Since they're so easy to understand, the broken-winged bird and the barren field make the message of the poem more urgent when they're deployed as metaphors.


When dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.

a black and white bird on the ground

A metaphor is a comparison between two things without using "like" or "as." (A comparison that uses "like" or "as" is a simile). In "Dreams," Langston Hughes develops his central metaphor in two ways. He compares life without dreams to a broken-winged bird that cannot fly and to a barren field frozen with snow. Since the images are so plain and concrete, the metaphor is clear: life without dreams is no good. This makes the message of the whole poem clear as day: hold on to your dreams, because without them, life is meaningless.


Hughes repeats the line "Hold fast to dreams" at the beginning of each quatrain of "Dreams." Repetition in poetry can be used for a few different purposes:

  • To draw specific attention to an idea
  • To cast an idea in a new light
  • To give a counterexample or new context to an idea

In "Dreams," Hughes repeats "Hold fast to dreams" to draw greater attention to the idea, as it's the main message of the poem. It's what he wants the reader to take away after they've read the poem, a thesis statement of sorts. Then the imagery, metaphor, and other poetic devices are the evidence to support his repeated "argument."

"Dreams" Theme

Putting it all together now, a clear picture of the "Dreams" by Langston Hughes' theme emerges. The repeated line "Hold fast to dreams" is the what, and the imagery and metaphor are the why. The reader should hold fast to their dreams, because without dreams life is motionless, barren, and meaningless.

Analysis of "Dreams"

Though "Dreams" by Langston Hughes is short, its meaning is deep. Read on for some analysis of "Dreams" in theme, audience, and imagery.

The Bird and the Field

The two choices of image that Hughes deploys in "Dreams" are similar, but have different connotations. Consider:

  • "if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly"

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Langston Hughes' "Dreams" Activity

TP-CASTT Poetic Analysis

For this activity, you are going to further your understanding of Langston Hughes' popular poem, "Dreams," by completing a critical analysis. Fill out the following information about the poem.

Title: Analyze the title of the poem. Why is it called "Dreams?"

Paraphrase: Translate the poem in your own words. Make sure you explain each line of the poem.

Connotation: Analyze any figurative language in this poem. Pay close attention to Hughes' use of imagery and metaphor.

Attitude/Tone: What is the author's attitude throughout the poem? Use evidence from the poem to support your response.

Shifts: Are there any major changes in the author's attitude? If so, explain.

Title: Reexamine the title. Now that you have critically analyzed the poem, has your interpretation of the title changed? Explain.

Theme: Briefly explain what the subject of the poem is, and then determine the major theme(s) of the poem.

Example response:

Title: This poem is about the importance of having dreams.


  • "Hold fast to dreams" means 'don't let go of your dreams.'
  • "For if dreams die" means 'because when you give up on your dreams...'
  • "Life is a broken-winged bird" means 'life becomes hopeless.'
  • "That cannot fly" means 'life without dreams is as sad and tragic as a bird that can't fly.'
  • "Hold fast to dreams" means 'don't let go of your dreams.'
  • "For when dreams go" means 'because if you give up on them...'
  • "Life is a barren field" means 'life becomes a place of hopelessness and emptiness.'
  • "Frozen with snow" means 'like a cold and permanent place.'

Connotation: Hughes uses two powerful images in his poem. First, he describes a bird with a broken wing. Next, he depicts an empty and cold field. Both of these images act as metaphors comparing a life without dreams to a bird that can't fly and an empty/cold field.

Attitude/Tone: The overall tone is fairly somber due to Hughes' depressing images of a "broken winged-bird" and a "barren field."

Shifts: There is no major shift.

Title: If you let go of your dreams, your life will be sad and hopeless.

Theme: The poem is about holding on to dreams, and the theme is similar. Don't let go of your dreams.

What are the two metaphors in Dreams by Langston Hughes?

The two metaphors in Dreams by Langston Hughes are "when dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly" and "when dreams go, life is a barren field frozen with snow."

What is the meaning of the poem Dreams by Langston Hughes?

The meaning of the poem Dreams by Langston Hughes is simple: don't give up on your big dreams and goals, or life will be broken, motionless, and meaningless.

Why did Langston Hughes write Dreams?

Langston Hughes wrote Dreams to encourage his main audience - working-class black Americans in the 1920s - to hold onto their dreams of a better life and equality. Without those dreams, according to the poem, life is devoid of meaning and purpose.

What does hold fast to dreams mean?

"Hold fast to dreams" means keep pursuing your bigger goals and wishes for life; don't give up on them, or life will be meaningless and purposeless.

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