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