Study Guide

Song for a Dark Girl Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Grab your harmonica, and maybe a guitar. It's time to sing the blues, Shmoopers. We know you've got it in you.

    We mean, the poem's called a "Song" for crying out loud. It begs to be given notes. There's even an allusion to a pretty famous song three times in this short poem—the line "Way Down South in Dixie" echoes the unofficial Confederate anthem from the Civil War, "Dixie."

    But this girl is not repeating the rousing sentiments and joyful rhythms of "Dixie" with her song. No, she's joining in a music that was becoming prominent at the time this poem was written—the blues. She's like Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey—soulful, sad, and moving. The fate of her lover may be too painful to look at directly, but if she can't do anything, at least she can sing about it. And she sings with a rhythm, a distinct beat.

    Part of what makes this poem so distinct is that Hughes puts lots of single-syllable words right next to each other, each deserving of their own weight and stress—"Way Down South," "black young lover," "cross roads tree." As you read the poem aloud, you have to land—hard—on each of those words. You can't skip over them. You can't rush.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title lets us know right away that the speaker of this poem is distinct from the poet. Langston Hughes is no girl. That means that we're dealing with a little something called a persona poem, or a poem in which the speaker adopts the voice of a character.

    And just who is this character? Well, we can learn a lot about her from the phrase "dark girl" (and for even more, be sure to visit our section on the "Speaker"). It tells us that she's black and she's young. And instead of referring to her as a black woman or a black girl, the poet has chosen to call her a dark girl.

    What's that about? Well for one thing, it takes the emphasis off her race and puts it on her emotions. And aren't those what matter here? This girl has both dark skin and dark thoughts, because she's in full-on grieving mode.

    The title also shows us that this is meant to be a song as much as a poem. Hughes was inspired by the blues and jazz music that surrounded him, so he writes this poem as a song for his speaker. This means that, when we read it aloud, we could even put a melody to it and sing it. Hey, maybe that's exactly what Hughes wanted. There is a meter after all.

    The idea that this poem is a song also connects it to the Confederacy's unofficial national anthem, "Dixie," from which this poem takes its refrain, "Way Down South in Dixie." If "Dixie" is a song for white men, then this poem is a song for a dark girl.

  • Setting

    We're told three times in this poem where we are—way down South in Dixie. So, we're probably somewhere like Mississippi, Louisiana, or Alabama—you know, the Deep South. Bets are we're somewhere rural, far away from big cities, but maybe near a small town, where the crossroads would be a convenient gathering place.

    If the poem is, as we suspect, set around the time period it was written, we're in the early twentieth century, and things are pretty rough for black people in America—especially in the South, where Jim Crow laws are still in full force. The Ku Klux Klan is active, and black men can get lynched for just looking at someone the wrong way.

    Yet we don't see much of this in the poem. There's no overt mention of racism, or the folks who hanged this speaker's man. We just see the South, and a body hanging from a tree at a crossroads. And really, that's all we need.

    The point here is not the big mean world. The focus is on this one girl's grief, and how the big mean world brings that grief about. In the end, she's not all that interested in who did this to her main squeeze. What matters to her now is not guilt, but grief.

  • Speaker

    This is one poem in which we have a clear cut case of the speaker being quite different from the author. While both are black, and are connected by the persecution of their race, Langston Hughes is male, and this one's for the girls.

    Okay, so she's young enough to be considered a girl, but old enough to have a young lover. We're going to go out on a limb (gasp!) and guess that she's high school age, maybe just shy of 18. Maybe her lover is her first love, and she's caught up in the excitement of loving him… until she sees him hanging from a tree.

    She lives down South, which means we'd bet good money she's heard someone singing "Dixie," the unofficial Confederate anthem. That could be the influence for the refrain in this poem. And that means, folks, that this speaker has one sharp sense of irony.

    Considering that she asks Jesus what the use of prayer is, we're guessing that, at least before this event, she was Christian. But after this, who knows if she'll be going back to church. She certainly doesn't seem to be much for praying anymore.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    The rhythm of this poem carries you right on through like you're cresting on a wave. But watch for sharks—the subtleties of this poem, which can seem so simple. The best parts of this poem are that it grapples with the tough issues of race, religion, and love, so stay on your guard. It may look simple, but it's anything but.

  • Calling Card

    Black Americans and the Blues

    Langston Hughes wrote blues poetry about the experience of being black. He was inspired by black blues singers, especially those of the Harlem Renaissance. Like the blues, his poetry is about what it means to keep on singing even when despair has taken your will to pray, and it's infused with the rhythms and rhymes we'd hear from any number of blues singers. "Song for a Dark Girl" is a classic example. It's blues all the way.

  • Form and Meter

    Rhyming Quatrains of Iambic Trimeter

    How could the form of such a short poem have such a long name? Don't worry. We'll show you.

    Four Liners

    Each of the three stanzas in this Stanzas with four lines in them are called quatrains. These quatrains happen to rhyme, but not all that regularly. In each stanza, the second and fourth lines rhyme. In the first and last stanza, this rhyme is between "me" and "tree," while in the second stanza, the rhyme is between "air" and "prayer." That means the rhyme scheme goes a little something like this: ABCB ADED ABFB.

    So, in the first and last stanzas, the first line rhymes with the second and fourth. In the second stanza, no such luck. And there's no rhyme at all for the poor neglected third lines, left all by themselves. But hey, you try rhyming "Jesus."

    Moving on from the stanza structure and the rhyme scheme, we get to the reason why, when read aloud, this poem seems to have a distinct beat—it's written in iambic trimeter.

    A Meter Fit for the Blues

    An iamb is a poetic unit of sound, in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. "Trimeter" means that there are three of these units of sound in every line, which means each line has three beats. Here's an example, with stressed syllables in bold and italics:

    They hung my black young lover

    In that line, we see an example of what is called a feminine ending, which means that at the end of the line of iambs, there's an unstressed syllable just hanging out, bein' all extra and stuff.

    For the most part, though, this poem sticks to its form, with a bluesy riff now and then. And that word bluesy is key. Hughes was known for writing poems with blues rhythms (twelve bar blues, eight bar blues, you name it). This poem uses a similar meter and rhyme scheme as lots of blues songs, and that totally fits the subject matter if you ask Shmoop.

  • Religion

    When faced with the tragedy of losing her lover, the speaker turns to Jesus—but doesn't really think he'll be able to help. Though the reference to religion is pretty obvious in the second stanza of this poem, it sneaks into the poem elsewhere too.

    • Line 4: The space between the word "cross" and the word "roads" gives us a hint that this tree is meant to be read as more than just a tree that stands at a crossroads, or intersection. Instead, we think of this as an allusion, or reference, to Jesus' cross.
    • Lines 7-8: Here, the speaker is addressing religion directly. Yet she chooses to specifically address Jesus. Not God, not Mary, but Jesus—the Christian figure who, like her lover, was killed by a mob. She's wondering "why pray?" This shows that her despair at losing her lover to racism is causing her to question her faith.
  • Color

    Black and white are the predominant colors in this poem, but we can't forget the color blue—as in the blues, blues poetry, and the bruises on the lover's body. But blackness in this poem is more than a color—it's a cause of death.

    • Title: The girl who is singing this song is dark. This is an interesting word choice, because not only does the word "dark" denote her skin color, but implies that, after this tragedy, she's feeling very dark inside. 
    • Lines 1, 5 and 9: This refrain, which is repeated at the beginning of every stanza, does not mention color specifically, but puts us in a place where the color of your skin can have life or death stakes: the post Civil War South. 
    • Line 3: The color black is emphasized by its placement in the line. The rhythm emphasizes the word black, rather than the word young. The young man, we can presume from the historical context, was killed because he was black. 
    • Line 7: Here, we see the color white. Just like our speaker emphasizes her lover's blackness, she emphasizes Jesus' whiteness. Both of them are victims—her husband hanged from a tree, Jesus nailed to a cross. But no one is making a martyr out of this young black man—except, maybe, the speaker and readers of this poem. 
  • Nakedness

    Don't get too excited. We're not talking just physical nakedness here, but nakedness of the soul. Love, our speaker says, is just a naked shadow. From this, we can infer that her husband was stripped before he was hanged, a humiliating and cruel way to make him seem like less of a man. And his nakedness even extends to the tree, which has been stripped of its greenery so that it can be used for something awful.

    • Line 4: We may not know that the lover is naked at this point, but seeing him at a crossroads tells us that he is displayed for humiliation at a place where there is probably plenty of traffic.
    • Line 6: Here, we see an image of the speaker's bruised body, which lets us know that he's probably naked, or at least barely clothed. It's a horror that his dead body is left to hang, naked or not. 
    • Lines 7-8: Besides reminding us of Jesus' crucifixion, at which he was naked, these lines show how naked this tragedy left the speaker feeling about her religion.
    • Lines 11-12: In these two lines, the word "naked" is used twice. The naked shadow could mean, literally, the shadow of the body against the tree. But it could also be a metaphor for the body of the speaker's lover, which seems just like a shadow. It's a sure thing, though, that these two lines are a metaphor for love. On top of all the metaphor, there's personification in these lines, because even the tree on which the lover is hanged is naked. Trees don't wear clothes, but if our lover were hung on a tree, we'd feel like the tree was pretty horrid and naked, too.
    • Steaminess Rating

      PG 13

      While we don't actually see any love-making, we get some disturbing emotional content. This poem is about two young lovers. One is physically stripped, beaten, and lynched. The other, the girl who sings this poem, is emotionally stripped and bruised. If not for sex and nudity, this poem needs a higher rating for its disturbing subject.

    • Allusions

      Historical References:

      The Civil War, through the Confederacy's unofficial national anthem, "Dixie" (1, 5, and 9)

      Religious References:

      Jesus Christ (4, 7)