Posted: March 18th, 2022

Hughes uses a number of poetic devices

Langston Hughes’ “Democracy”


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A number of ideas are expressed — and buried — in Langston Hughes’ 1949 poem “Democracy.” The poem is composed in open form and appears to take its cues from the musical jazz movement of the time period. Its lines are short, often punctuated by abbreviated verses and sudden rhymes that indicate a sense of urgency and immediacy, while vibrating with a strong and insistent timbre and tone. The content of the poem is also structured like that of a piece of jazz music, with various layers of meaning coming together all at once through symbol, metaphor, assonance and suggestion. This paper will analyze the meaning of Hughes’ “Democracy” by examining its use of various poetic devices as well as the ideas that the poem’s language helps to convey both literally and figuratively.


The poem begins with the line “Democracy will not come,” which is full of hard sounds “d,” “ck,” “m” and “n” as well as the assonant “o” sound, used to convey an emptiness and hollowness at the heart of the poem in general and of this stanza in particular. The sounds support the meaning of the line which conveys a hard truth: the type of government that Americans believe they have is not really in the works. Buried in the line is the beginning of a connection, however. If one looks at the whole of the poem, democracy is being connected to the idea of Freedom. Freedom is the word that is used in the final two stanzas of the poem — not democracy. In fact, the term “democracy” only occurs once in the entire poem of five stanzas (if one excludes its usage in the title, of course), while the term “freedom” occurs three times. The hard and hollow sounds in the first stanza emphasize this connection by phonetically illustrating the idea of democracy as like a big, empty chest, rumored to be full of promises but in actuality never opening up or paying off.


It is important to note that Hughes is using the term “democracy” as a metaphor for freedom, connecting the idea of democracy, which begins the poem, to the idea of freedom, which ends it. When he writes that “democracy will not come” in the first line, he is implying something figurative and literal. It may be said that Hughes literally shows how democracy will never show up again by discarding the term completely and dropping it entirely from the poem. He implies a figurative meaning at the same time, by metaphorically using the term democracy: It is freedom that Hughes really desires; democracy, or the term “democracy” is simply a means of achieving freedom. Since it is clear that “freedom” is what he lacks, he attacks the idea of “democracy” as a means of achieving that “freedom.” Yet the fact that democracy, or majority rule, is equated to freedom should strike the reader as an odd equation and compel one to ask what liberty has to do with government by the people (which so often translates into mob rule, corrupt politics, and lobby-bought politicians)? If democracy is a symbol of freedom, it is a deceptive symbol, for Hughes suggests that it cannot, does not, or will not deliver what its proponents profess it will. In other words, democracy is a frustrated end, a dead-end alleyway, and at best an empty promise.


The emptiness of the idea of “democracy” is echoed in the following two lines, which together comprise seven syllables total. Line 2 of the poem is made of two iambs, “Today, this year,” and the iambic meter continues into Line 3, “Nor ever” which has, however, a weak (or feminine) ending.


Packed into these two brief lines are many powerful concepts. The first thing these lines illustrate is the enormity of time that will pass before democracy ever shows itself as a fully functioning, operating system of government. The lines go from the expectation that it will not appear or be erected overnight (or in a single day) to in a single year to at all. Hughes flashes at light-speed through a momentary struggle (the struggle for democracy) to a kind of eternal longing that touches briefly on immortality (“Nor ever”) before recoiling back at the recognition that no matter how long the struggle is taken up, it will never pay off. Thus, by virtually leaping outside of time and foreseeing the end of the present state of democracy, Hughes evokes a second powerful concept, which is the notion of despair. The feeling of despair is associated with both the failure of democracy and a kind of fatalistic sense that mankind is doomed to suffer from something even worse than failed democracy — something dark, foreboding, and impenetrable. This implicitly dark and malevolent tone is capped off by the final line of the stanza which gives some basis for the tone.


Indeed, Hughes qualifies the ideas and tone of the first stanza with Line 4, the final line of the stanza, which reads, “Through compromise and fear.” This line places in context the way in which Hughes sees democracy as being enacted — not through the will of the people, but rather through coercion and “compromise.” Essentially, therefore, Hughes is acknowledging that democracy in America is lacking something profoundly good and beneficial. In short, democracy in America appears to be more like tyranny, which generally operates through oppression (a feeling strongly emitted in the poem) and fear.


“Fear” is the term that ends the stanza and it rhymes Line 4 with Line 2. By using it as a rhyme with “year,” Hughes associates the two words together and implicitly suggests that fear tactics (and compromise) have been the pattern of governmental practice year in and year out for an untold amount of time. The connection gives the stanza a kind of depressing, cyclical effect, as though living in under such a form of government was like living in a deadly machine.


Hughes maintains a sense of hope and inspiration throughout the poem and such is evident in the first stanza. In it, he preserves the use of an iambic meter, even though the length of each line is disproportionate to the next. However, Line 1 and Line 4 are the longest and serve as a kind of frame for the stanza, visually representing the hollowness of the idea of democracy as Hughes has conceived it: If the first and fourth line serve as the framework of the stanza, the picture within is empty, containing only two lines of five words total, both of which use an assonant “o” sound to convey phonetically the same empty sense.


The second stanza (of five lines) continues with the same rhyme scheme, with Line 5 rhyming with Line 3. Just as in the first stanza, Line 3 in the second stanza consists of two words. However, Line 3 in the second stanza is a kind of defiant rejection of the ideas expressed (and buried) in the first stanza. In fact, it is as though Hughes were literally killing them and burying them in the earth himself and firmly planting his second stanza atop them: “To stand / On my two feet / And own the land.” Rather than democracy as an ideal, Hughes is asserting individuality as an ideal and appealing to the Enlightenment concept of “the rights of man.” Indeed, Lines 5-6 (the first and second lines of the second stanza) announce this new direction: “I have as much right / As the other fellow has” clearly is an appeal to the notion of equality. Equality, liberty, and fraternity — the ideals of the French Revolution — pepper the remainder of the poem and supplant the empty, dead, and illusory ideal of democracy. However, these ideals seem to be as elusive as the ideal of democracy (which is obviously dead, according to Hughes). The sign of their elusiveness may be seen in the remaining stanzas of the poem, which express a sense of fatigue (Line 10), anger (Lines 10-14), and longing (Lines 19-21).


Throughout the remainder of the poem, the verses continue to intone the rhythmic beats of a piece of jazz music — open form yet consistent and patterned; capable of saying quickly and distinctly what it wants to say, yet able to explode with a sudden burst of energy and creativity before backing off and quietly resuming its simple song. In Hughes’ poem, the explosion occurs in the third stanza, when the rhyming pattern and length of lines of the previous two stanzas is suddenly altered into a lyrical stanza of five lines with a rhyme scheme of ABACC.


In this stanza, Hughes rejects outright the notion of progress, when it is plain to him that promises (empty) are not the same as progress: “I do not need my freedom when I’m dead. / I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.” He also rejects the apathy and indifference of people who say, “Let things take their course.” Obviously, he believes the course is leading nowhere fast and needs to be altered. If “things” continue to take their course, in fact, he strongly implies that he will not be able to live another day. “Bread” (Line 14) is used both metaphorically and literally, meaning both bread that one eats to live as well as the promise of “freedom” (Line 13), issued through the mouths of an empty and oppressive “democratic” government.


In the final two quick and sudden stanzas, with lines composed of as few as one word to as many as four, Hughes makes his most adamant appeal to “freedom.” He uses the symbol of the “seed” (Line 16) to illustrate how freedom is like nourishment — better than any wheat or promise — and how if planted and tilled properly can grow and provide for all. Moreover, he asserts that the seed of freedom is needed now more than ever — that freedom is what the country is in “great need” of (Line 18). “Seed” (Line 16) rhymes with “need” (Line 18), emphasizing this point.


Finally, the individual (Hughes himself) asserts his position tersely in the last stanza. Rather than a useless democracy in which everyone supposedly has a vote, Hughes wants “freedom.” He wants to draw attention to the fact that he is not invisible, but actually exists, “I live here too” (Line 19), and has desires and needs just like everyone else: “I want freedom / Just as you” (Lines 20-21). That he should spring from the autonomous “I” to the second person “you” indicates the final appeal of Hughes, which is to the notion of “fraternity.” However, one may wonder whether it is an appeal as much as it is a protest.


In conclusion, the tone of the poem is certainly not pleading. It may be that Hughes’ “Democracy” is a protest poem that attempts to re-assert the ideals that are supposed to have originally shaped America: the “rights of man” and the idea of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” for all. Hughes uses a number of poetic devices, metaphors, symbols, and forms to construct a poem that emphasizes the empty nature of modern democracy and the “need” for something new, which he identifies as “freedom.” That the poem is not entitled “Freedom,” but rather “Democracy” suggests that the work itself is aimed at slaying the myth of democracy in America and insisting that a need for reform exists.

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