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On Langston Hughes’s “Ardella”

Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) is probably my favorite poet. He was a Harlem Renaissance writer who mostly wrote about his black experience in America. I don’t say the black experience, because obviously, not all Black Americans have the same experiences. Mr. Hughes lived at a time when racism was much more overt, and that is certainly reflected in his poetry. Hughes is my favorite poet, not only because I can relate to so much of what he says, but also because his verses are simple and direct. He doesn’t waste words, and his poetry is not esoteric.

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,””Dream Deferred,” and “I, Too” are probably his most famous works. They are often included in anthologies and textbooks. However, my favorite poem by Hughes is one of his lesser-known works. It’s called “Ardella” and it is sometimes listed as “Quiet Girl.” “Ardella” is one of my favorite poems because I love the language of it and I think it’s terribly romantic. It goes like this:

I would liken you
To a night without stars
Were it not for your eyes.
I would liken you
To a sleep without dreams
Were it not for your songs.

While Hughes at first attempts to compare the woman to a starless sky and a dreamless sleep, he says that he cannot quite compare her to these things due to her eyes and her songs. The poem could perhaps be understood like this: I would compare you to a starless night, but your eyes are too bright. I would compare you to a dreamless sleep, but your songs arouse me.

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I’ve heard the poem described as overly simplistic. I don’t agree. I think it is definitely short and simple, only thirty words written in a clear, calm tone, but look at how well it’s crafted. I think it’s brilliant that he compares her demeanor to a calming sleep; It’s so accurate. We’ve all woke from sleep with a calm and relaxed feeling, as though we’re completely sated. I think that being with this girl is what puts the speaker of the poem at ease, in the same way that a dreamless sleep would calm his senses. However, I also think he’s saying that her songs are not calming, but rather, they are the opposite. In my mind, the speaker is dreaming with his head on the lap of his beloved and then she starts singing, and her voice both awakens and excites him. I imagine her songs are akin to the jazz music popularized during the Harlem Renaissance. When he’s with her, he’s in a dream, but her songs cut into him deeply.

Hughes, Langston. The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. New York: Knopf, 2007.