Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Literature, Poetry, Poem, Birds, America, Sympathy, African American, Symbolism

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2020/11/16

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The two poems-Harlem and Sympathy-show what became of the dream of the Black Americans . They are both focused on the dreams and hopes of the Black American, and the underlying impeding factors to achieving it. In the poem Harlem, the dream seems like a load that weight heavily on the dreamer’s shoulders with no hope of actualization. On the other hand, the poem, Sympathy, explains the frustration that comes with the lack of the ability to actualize the dream, and the effect of any attempts to do so-injury, torture and pain. The two poems are similar in theme, style and symbolism. The use of metaphor in sympathy is also seen in Harlem whereby the situation of the American Black citizens is compared to fester from a sore and a heavy load. In sympathy, the actualization of the dream is compared to the attempts of a caged bird to fly away free.
The poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes is a lyrical poem that explains the oppression and discrimination that black Americans faced in America . Sympathy” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar talks about a caged bird and the reason why it acts as it does. They are both symbolic of the oppression that the black people experienced in the hands of the white people. The essay compares and contrasts the two poems in terms of their structure, theme and style in portraying the message.

Comparison in the Themes

The two poems, Harlem and Sympathy present a common theme, that of the oppression of the black Americans, and the agony and frustration they feel as a result of the oppression. In Harlem, Langston Hughes explains the life of the black Americans in the context of a dream. The uncertainty that the black Americans live in makes it impossible to tell the eventuality of their hopes and goals. Hughes, on the other hand, uses a caged bird to symbolize the life of the black Americans. The first verse shows the beauty that surrounds the bird, but is inaccessible to the bird because of the inflicted “captivity,” the cage. Both poems show the distant dream that seems impossible to achieve because of the state of affairs in the environment.
In Harlem, the object of reference is a “dream.” Hughes asks about what should become of the dream. In the first line, he asks if the dream dries. He also asks if it festers like a sore in line three. The other question is whether it stinks like rotten meat. Lines nine and ten ask whether it sags like a load. That is to ask whether the dream forever stays as a dream, never to be actualized despite the pressing need to do so.
The object of reference in “Sympathy” is a caged bird. The poem shows that Dunbar associated himself to the caged bird and the experience it undergoes as shown in the first stanza. He explains the cage as a cruel place to put the bird, and the constant yearning of the bird to break free and fly to the skies. That shows the oppressed environment that the black Americans lived in and the constant yearning they had for freedom. The poem further illustrates the torture that the black undergo in their search for freedom and expression. The first verse shows the frustration of the caged bird as it sees the beauty that surrounds it, but cannot access it. Hughes relates to the bird in expressing the longing to experience the beauty of the world but the restrictions that exist make it impossible to experience it. All he can do is watch and yearn.

The Imagery Patterns in the Poems

The poems have a strong sense of imagery in the description of the circumstances of the topics. For instance, the implicit explanation about the dream and what becomes of it creates a mental picture of the uncertainty of the future of the dreamer. The dreamer feels desperate because the dream seems to be fighting to get to the light, but the external controlling factors make it impossible to actualize it. That is seen in the poem, Harlem. The explicit definition of what seems to become of a dream is defined as fester in the fourth line, rotten meat in the sixth line and a heavy load that weight the carrier down in the eighth and ninth lines. The comparison of the dream to a sweet crust of sugar denotes what they dreamer wishes of their dream. However, the surrounding negativity could be owed for the negativity in the poem and in terms of realizing the dream. After the civil war, Black Americans faced inhumane treatment including unwarranted beatings of the innocent ones. The possibility of realizing ones goals seemed like a distant impossible reality.
In the poem, Sympathy by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the visual symbolism makes the reader feel the agony of the caged bird. Associating with the bird moves the reader in the rhythm of the experience that the caged bird undergoes, the strong yearning to get out of the cage and be free. The bird yearns to go and enjoy the beauty that lies outside the cage. The first verse describes the outside environment as bright as the sun shines on the slopes in lines two to six. However, it is at the mercy of those that caged it because the grills of the cage are beyond its strength. The attempts to fly out of the cage are futile and they only leave it bruised and bleeding. Verse 2 Line 2 describes the way that is flaps its wings until it bleeds upon the bars. It further explains that the injury is added onto the already existing scars that were inflicted before.
The implicit definition of the situation of the bird shows the pain that the black Americans underwent whenever they made an attempt to become free and actualize their dreams. The unwarranted beatings and unjust torture that came about with the search for self-expression only added physical and emotional pain onto the Black Americans.

Common Symbol found in the Poems

The poems have a common symbol of wounds and sores to explain the pain and torture that the oppression inflicts on them. In Harlem, Hughes asks. “Should a dream fester like a soreand the run?” . The poem-Sympathy uses scars-wounds and blood to show the impact that the attempt to actualize dreams and be free brings. He says, “Till its blood is red on the cruel bars; for he must fly back to his perch and cling,” as seen in the second stanza, line two and three. The fifth stanza states that the pain is added onto that that exists in the old scars. The symbol of the wound is a common symbol that represents the physical pain that the Black Americans went through, and the possibility of the white oppressors inflicting more pain upon the scars if the Blacks tried to break free. The eventuality of the symbol is that all that is left of the Black American and his dreams are Hopelessness and despair, with dreams incomplete and hopes pending, never to be realized.

Structure of the Poems.

Harlem comprises of four verses. The first verse is a question that introduces the overall theme of the poem. It asks what a dream that is never given the chance to actualize becomes. The second verse consists of seven lines that explain the theme of the poem in depth by the use of comparisons, imagery and symbolism. The third seems to wrap up the hopeless eventuality of unrealized dreams in two lines. The final verse has only one line that is also a question, like the first. The poem exhibits lyrical qualities in its structure. The wording is also rhythmic because of the use of the irregular rhymes, alliteration and repetition in addition to the syllables that are stressed. Out of the seven lines of the poem, six are questions.
The poem-Sympathy-consists of three verses, each with seven lines. The poem also has lyrical quality in the numbering of the syllables and the structure of the words. It also has evidence of rhymes and regularity in the structure. For instance, the second stanza has wing, cling, swing and sting. The poem also has repetition in the last words of the first and last lines of the second verse.


The two poems, Sympathy and Harlem are symbolic of the oppressed nature of the Black Americans after the civil war, and the implications of the treatment. The feelings of despair and frustration are shown in the two poems as are those of pain and suffering. The two poems have similarities in several aspects on style and structure. The different topics and wordings make it easier to grasp the message and feel the pain that the authors want to express.


Cummings, M. J. (2007). Harlem. Retrieved Feb 17, 2015, from Cummings Study Guide:
Cummings, M. J. (2010). Sympathy. Retrieved Feb 17, 2015, from The Cummings Study Guide:

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