Langston Hughes’ poem “As I Grew Older” is about how a speaker had a dream. When he grew older, he was disillusioned by the fact that it was easy to achieve his dream. It is a long process of overcoming the fears and all the injustices that happened to the speaker. Hughes’ speaker represents the African Americans who had dreams in their lives. But, the wall of racial discrimination, injustice, and inequality barred them to achieve their goal. Hughes had a message for them regarding how to break this huge wall for achieving what they thought. There is nothing that can stop a person from getting things he or she badly wants. There is only one prerequisite. The person has to dare to overcome the fears and break that wall.
“As I Grew Older” is a poem about how an African-American dreamt a long time ago. As he grew older his dream started to fade due to racial discrimination and injustice. Earlier, being a person from the black community means bondage that they have to serve throughout their life. There was no scope to turn around and achieve their goals. The speaker of this poem is in a similar condition. But, somehow he learned the art of overcoming his fear. With a clenched fist, he shattered the wall that hindered him to achieve his dream, brimming like the sun.
In this poem, Hughes talks about how he was barred to achieve his goal. He had a dream in his childhood. As he grew older, he realized that it was difficult to fulfill his dream in a country where racial discrimination and inequality existed. The hindrances were like a big, thick wall that stood between him and his dream. However, with time, he learned how to fight back. He knew the power inside him. With this energy, he wished of breaking the wall and lightening the space his community was barricaded into.
Structure & Form
Hughes’ “As I Grew Older” is written in free verse. It does not have a conventional form. The overall poem consists of a combination of 29 short and long lines. They are packed into a single stanza. There is no specific rhyme scheme. Only a few repetitions at the end of some lines create rhyming. Regarding the meter, it mostly contains the iambic meter with several variations. Besides, this poem is told from the perspective of a first-person speaker. So, it is an example of a free-verse lyric poem.
Literary Devices & Figurative Language
Hughes uses a variety of literary devices for presenting his ideas. The important ones are mentioned below:
Hughes uses a simile in the line “Bright like a sun”. Here, the poet’s dream is compared to the brightness of the sun.
- There is a metaphor in the lines “Bright like a sun —/ My dream.” Here, the poet compares his dream to the sun.
- In the following line, the “wall” is a metaphor of racial discrimination and inequality.
- In these lines “Help me to shatter this darkness,/ To smash this night,/ To break this shadow”, Hughe compares darkness with a breakable object.
Hughes repeats the words “dream”, “wall”, “shadow”, “hands” and “sun” for the sake of emphasis. He also uses this device to create a resonance of the ideas in readers’ minds.
Readers can find some exaggerating expressions in the lines:
- “Rose until it touched the sky—”
- “Into a thousand lights of sun”
- “Into a thousand whirling dreams/ Of sun!”
In these examples, Hughes uses hyperbole for emphasizing his ideas.
The lines “I am black” and “I lie down in the shadow” contain irony. In these lines, the poet ironically talks about how society viewed his community.
It occurs in the following lines:
- Lines 14-15 (Beginning with “I”)
- Lines 18-19 (Beginning with “Only”)
- Lines 20-21 (Starting with “My”)
- Lines 25-26 (Starting with “To”)
- Lines 27-28 (Beginning with “Into”)
Hughes repeats the same word at the beginning of two consecutive lines. This device is used to connect the ideas internally.
There are a series of rhetorical exclamations used in lines 20-23. This device changes the mood of this section and highlights the fact that the speaker is fighting back.
It occurs in the following examples:
- “there then”
- “then the”
- “rose/ Rose”
- “slowly,/ Slowly”
- “me and my” etc.
It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun—
The poem “As I Grew Older” begins with two end-stopped lines. These lines sound like the speaker is somehow discouraged by the things that happened to him. It led him to lose contact with his dream. This first-person speaker is none other than the poet Langston Hughes. He represents the African Americans of the early 20th century.
The speaker refers to the fact he has almost forgotten his dream a long time back. He saw the dream of doing something better in his life in his childhood days or in his youth. Whatsoever, the circumstances took the opposite direction, leaving him with only a reflection of his dream.
He can imagine the glow of his dream. It was there as the bright sun. If the sky is his mind, the sun metaphorically stands for his dream. He reiterates the importance of the dream, by uttering a two-line end-stopped remark, “My dream.” The tone resonates with his identity. In this way, the first five lines of “As I Grew Older” introduces the persona and his main concern.
And then the wall rose,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky—
As Hughes grew older and become young, he identified the growing wall of discrimination is raising invisibly. This wall projected all the hapless African Americans from the projectile of development, freedom, and growth. This wall represents a variety of things such as racism, inequality, discrimination, and injustice.
It rose slowly and silently. The speaker could not even imagine that one day it totally blocked the light. It stood as high as a huge mountain.
Hughes’ persona uses another metaphor in this section. He projects the wall as a barrier that stood between him and his goal. Using hyperbole, he remarks that the wall touched the sky. This exaggeration does not bring in some fantasy into this poem. Rather, it emphasizes the doomed future of the speaker.
This section also ends with a two-word end-stopped line “The wall.” Using “the” before the word “wall” makes this phrase sound more forceful. It highlights how this invisible barrier made African Americans suffer.
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
Hughes does not use wordy expressions to mark a shift in this piece. In the last line, he writes, “The wall.” This section begins with a single word “Shadow”. What does it infer? It refers to the shadow cast by the wall. As it stands between the speaker and the sun (dream), it shadows the space where the speaker is situated.
In the following lines, he remarks half-heartedly, “I am black.” It refers to the tragic destiny of those who were castigated for their racial status. Hughes projects the contemporary situation of African Americans in the following line. He subjectively talks about how he lies down in the shadow cast by the wall. Here, the “shadow” is a symbol of lack of opportunity, backwardness, and a doomed future.
The speaker cannot see the light of his dream as he could visualize before. In this hopeless state, he finds himself in a complete vacuum, having nothing to look ahead or above. There is only the thick wall standing in front of him and the shadow cast on him. The last two lines of this section begin in a similar pattern. Hughes uses this pattern to achieve an artistic effect. Here, he emphasizes the hopelessness of the speaker.
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
The last section of “As I Grew Older” begins with four rhetorical exclamations. From the use of this device, it can be understood that here the tone and mood changes. The tone is that of a person who is breaking the shackles of injustice. He is protesting against those who raised the wall to stop him from achieving his dream.
He looks at his hands. Using repetition, Hughes emphasizes the power that lies in one’s hands. Here, he symbolically portrays the hands as an instrument of protest and fighting back. The speaker proclaims that he must break through the wall and find his dream. There is nothing that can stop him.
He prays to the Almighty to give him the power to shatter the darkness, the symbolic night, and the shadow that kept him in hopelessness and mental agony. The usage of the words “smash”, “shatter”, and “break” sounds like the speaker is declaring a war against racism, inequality, and injustice.
What is he trying to achieve by fighting this war? He wants to free those who are shackled down to their last breath. All he wants to do is break the wall and set the light to rejuvenate their long-lost spirits. It will infuse them with hope and the energy to fight back.
The phrase “thousand lights of sun” refers to the dreams of the speaker’s community. Each one of them has their own dreams to fulfill. For this reason, Hughes collectively refers to their goals as “thousand whirling dreams/ Of sun.”
The main theme of the poem “As I Grew Older” is dream and denial. Hughes’ speaker had a dream a long time ago when he was a young man. Then he could visualize his goal by merely closing his eyes. When he grew older, he was moved by the fact that his identity is the barrier between him and his goal. His only fault was that he was black. Hence, the racist society built a wall of discrimination and inequality in front of him and stopped him from achieving what he dreamed of. So, the denial he received for being an African American is featured in this poem. Besides, this poem also taps on the themes of racism, inequality, and protest.
Hughes uses a few symbols to refer to his poetic ideas. One such symbol is that of the “sun”. Hughes uses it as a sign of a dream. Like the sun, its brightness keeps one motivated. In the following section, there is another symbol in the usage of the word “wall”. It symbolizes discrimination, inequality, and injustice. Like a wall stops a person, the speaker was denied any opportunity due to racism. As readers go through the following lines, they come across the words “shadow” and “night”. These words collectively hint at a state of hopelessness and a doomed future. By using these symbols, Hughes depicts how African Americans were denied opportunities to prosper.
The tone of this piece is not constant. For example, in the first few lines, the tone is discouraging, pessimistic, and sad. The speaker talks about how he cannot see his dream anymore due to the wall raised between him and his goal. For this reason, his tone is sad and pessimistic. He is not even sure whether he can come out of the hopeless state that he is stuck in. The change in tone comes when the speaker starts talking about revolting against the injustice happening with him as well as others from his community. Readers can identify the shift in the 20th line and it lasts till the end. Here, the tone is optimistic, protesting, and strong.
Hughes uses the following types of imagery in “As I Grew Older”.
- Visual Imagery: Hughes visually depicts how his dream looks like the sun and the wall that rose higher and higher as he grew older. He uses visual imagery to depict how his speaker is in darkness and shadow for the wall.
- Organic Imagery: This type of imagery helps readers to connect with the feelings of the poetic persona. For example, by these lines “I am black./ I lie down in the shadow” readers can feel the pain of the speaker.
- Auditory Imagery: It is used in “Help me to shatter this darkness,/ To smash this night,/ To break this shadow”. In these lies, Hughes conveys the sounds of breaking glass metaphorically compared to darkness, night, and shadow.
Speaker & Setting
The speaker of the poem “As I Grew Older” is none other than poet Langston Hughes. Using his poetic persona, he talks about the injustice with him. When he was younger, he had a dream. As he grew older and was closer to achieving his goal, he realized that for his racial identity nobody was allowing him to prosper. He was denied all the opportunities that he fought hard to get. The setting of this piece is 19th century America where racial discrimination existed.
The poem “As I Grew Older” was written during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Langston Hughes was active at that time. He wrote several influential poems and gave the oppressed African Americans a voice. His poetry portrayed the working-class blacks in America and their struggle. Hughes shares the struggle of African Americans from a subjective point of view in his poem “As I Grew Older”. Here, he shares his story of denial and suppression. His fight to live his dream amidst racial injustice is portrayed in this piece.
Questions & Answers
Like any other individual, the dream of the speaker is to prosper in life or make his parents proud of him. The nature of his dream can be decoded from the symbol of the sun. Like the sun shines on all of us, his dream is probably associated with doing something big that can touch several lives. As the speaker is none other than Langston Hughes, he had touched millions of lives with his inspirational poetry. So, it was his goal.
As the poet grew older, he understood there are several other factors that were not in favor. He was motivated at heart. But, a black person’s life in 19th century America was not easy. No matter how hard they tried, the racist society never allowed them to prosper. They raised a huge, thick wall of discriminatory laws or policies to stop them from achieving their dreams.
The poem is both optimistic and pessimistic. In the first few lines, the speaker is pessimistic for not being able to visualize his dream due to the wall that stands between him and the dream. However, in the last few lines (starting with consecutive rhetorical exclamations) the poem becomes optimistic. Here, the speaker stands up for his rights by breaking the wall.
The speaker’s hands act as a symbol of protest, power, and fighting back. Though his hands were dark, they were not useless. He could do whatever he dreamed of by using these hands.
It is the wall of discrimination, inequality, and injustice that separates the poet from his dream.
Lying beside the shadow implies a state of hopelessness and a fruitless future.
Three major symbols of this piece are the sun, wall, and shadow. The symbol of the sun implies hope and optimism. While the last two symbols portray inequality and hopelessness.
By breaking through the metaphorical wall, the speaker can move forward. The wall stood between him and his dream. By breaking the wall, he can achieve his goal.
By using a simile, the poet compares his dream to the bright sun.
Previously, the speaker thought the path to achieving his dream was easy. It was brightly lit in his heart like the sun. As he grew older, he came across an invisible wall that stopped him from getting to his goal. For this reason, the grown-up speaker was disillusioned.
The speaker turned black due to the shadow cast by the huge wall standing in front of him. The speaker was an African American. That’s why he uses this reference, “I am black.”
The speaker uses light as a metaphor of hope and dream. He refers to the sun, a stock symbol of hope, for this reason.
The shadow will break into a “thousand lights” and “whirling dreams” of the sun. It means after breaking the wall of racial discrimination, the speaker and his community can achieve their goals.
The “shadow” symbolizes pessimism and the state of hopelessness in this poem.
The image of the sun stands for hope and dream.
The poet wants the breakthrough the wall, smash the night, and shatter the darkness in which he is stuck.
- Mike Yard Reads “As I Grew Older” — Listen to the reading of the poem.
- Lecture on “As I Grew Older” — Learn more about the poem and its themes.
- About Langston Hughes — Read more about the poet’s life and works.
- Langston Hughes’ Biography & Works — Explore the poet’s biography and his works.
- Poet Profile & Poems of Langston Hughes — Read more poems by the poet and his life.