Claude McKay and Langston Hughes are renowned American poets and authors. They lived and worked at the same historical period and their biographies have many similar facts. Both poets took active part in Harlem Renaissance. Besides, both poets suffered from racism, racial discrimination and segregation and these issues were displayed in their poems. Nevertheless, the poetry of McKay and the poems of Hughes also have many differences. Often, the poems write about the same things but the emotional tone and message of their poems are different. Both McKay and Hughes portray the reality and it is often described as tragic but McKay encourages readers to act and change the world. He believes that an individual has enough strength, courage, and dignity to oppose the threats and dangers of the cruel and violent world. Hughes is also an optimist who agrees with such ideas but his vision of reality is more tragic. He encourages people to act but he does not have any plan. This essay proves the abovementioned ideas by comparing the two poems of McKay and Hughes which have the same theme but different emotional tone. The poems are “America” written by Claude McKay and “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes. The paper states that although both poems describe America at the same historical period, the image of the country created by McKay is more positive and life-asserting.
The poem “America” written by Claude McKay consists of two major parts. The first part deals with the issue of racial intolerance, hatred, and other problems which upset the author. The second part which is bigger than the first describes McKay’s patriotic feelings. He considers America to be a great land and enjoys living there and being its part. McKay is very emphatic describing the negative sides of American reality: “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth” (McKay). This words show that the problems faced by the poet are so widely-spread that he can blame not only a single individual or a group of people but the whole country. McKay’s expresses his controversial opinion of America calling it “cultured hell” which means that even though the level of culture and progress is very high, it is still a hell for those social groups which are oppressed and discriminated. The character of the poem is brave and resilient: “I stand within her walls with not a shred Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer” (McKay). Troubles, oppressions and difficulties make the character even stronger: “Her vigor flows like tides into my blood, Giving me strength erect against her hate” (McKay). He foresees the future of America with optimism: “Darkly I gaze into the days ahead, And see her might and granite wonders there, Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand, Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand” (McKay). The significance of these two parts of the poem is not equal because the second part has more weight than the first one which makes the general emotional tone of the poem very optimistic and encouraging. McKay states that life in America is far from perfect but positive emotions are more important than all the problems. The poem is oriented on the present and future, although the character does not try to escape from the current reality to the ideal future. Mc Kay uses many elements of poetry in “America” which makes it more persuasive and beautiful. “America” contains similes such as, for example, “as a rebel fronts a king in state”, and many symbols, for instance, “bread of bitterness”, “priceless treasures”, and “Time’s unerring hand”. McKay personifies time and the words “Time’s unerring hand” mean that time will reveal the greatness of America.
The poem “Let America Be America Again” is longer than the McKay’s “America”. The message of the poem can be guessed from its heading. Hughes does not believe that America is America now; he escapes from reality and rejects it. The character of the poem draws attention to all social problems of American life; he mentions historical past and present of the country and refers to different social and ethical groups. All these people have much in common: they all suffer from poverty, discrimination, backbreaking labor, and financial inequality. Hughes’s poem is oriented at the past; a significant part of it is devoted to the historical events such as emigration of the Pilgrims. Besides, the poet portrays the image of ideal America which consists of all the dreams and expectations connected with “the land of freedom”. This ideal image contrasts with the episodes of modern American life. The character witnesses “The millions shot down when we strike” and various situations when “mighty crush the weak” (Hughes). The poet believes that people make up America but not money or lands or other material values which are considered to be the most precious by the rich. The character of the poem faced inequality and discrimination but his experience is just one among many other tragic scenes. The poem seems quite subjective because the character says “America never was America to me” (Hughes). Nevertheless, it is also very polyphonic because the poet speaks to readers with the help of many people. The ending of the poem is different from its beginning and the middle part because it is more energetic and optimistic. The poet refers to the future and claims that “America will be!” (Hughes). The poet believes in the bright future of America and states that people must redeem the America of their dreams. Nevertheless, he does not mention what actions can lead to the happiest future for American people and this exaltation sounds not like a call for struggle; it is rather an author’s dream. Hughes uses many elements of poetry, for example, repetitions. The most frequently used words in the text are America, dream, and freedom. America is mentioned so often because it is the main theme of the poem. The word America connected with the word dream creates the collocation “American dream” which is also one of the main concepts in the poem. Freedom is another important aspect. According to the poem, although America is called “land of freedom”, few people there are really free and the author tries to convey this tragic contrast between the dream and reality; he sympathizes the immigrants who came across the seas to the land of freedom and were fooled because people in America are not free. Moreover, Hughes uses the pronoun I to speak about other people, which makes his writing more credible. The poem also has a repetitive phrase “let America be America again” (Hughes). This title phrase is repeated several times; the poet places it in the beginning of the poem and in the end which bounds the poem together. The poem also contains several symbols, for example, the chain means lack of opportunities for young people. Hughes also uses similes, for instance: “From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives” (Hughes). This simile is used to characterize the rich people who exploit the poor. All these poetic elements make Hughes’s poem more emphatic. He also uses relatively many exclamation marks in the poem to make its influence on the readers stronger.
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The poem “America” by Claude McKay and “Let America be America Again” written by Langston Hughes have much in common. Firstly, it is optimistic prognosis about the future of America. Both authors are convinced that America will have a great future, although Hughes associates this future with the “American dream” and common well-being. McKay speaks about the future greatness of America without admiration or other positive emotions. He mentions the “granite wonders” but this does not mean finding solutions to all the social problems and better life for the poor. Another feature that is undoubtedly present in both poems is portraying the negative sides of American reality. As it was already mentioned, both poets suffered from racial inequality, discrimination, and violence. All these biographical facts influenced their poems. Both McKay and Hughes are dissatisfied and upset with racial issues and all the manifestations of inequality. In Hughes’ poem “Let America be America Again”, this theme is more deep and exhaustive. While McKay writes only about his personal experience, Hughes refers to many other people. Thus, the theme of social problems is one of the domineering in the poem “Let America be America Again”. Nevertheless, neither McKay, nor Hughes conceives the negative sides of American life. Other aspect which is common for both poems is the controversial image of America. The character of McKay’s poem is fascinated by America but at the same time it is not always easy and pleasant to live there: “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth, Stealing my breath of life, I will confess I love this cultured hell that tests my youth” (McKay). Hughes’s image of America is also ambiguous because for him America consists of the contrasts between dreams and reality. One more similarity is patriotism of both poets. McKay and Hughes faced many problems in America, for example, racial issues, but they are still patriots who care about their common future.
Despite all the similarities, the poems have also many differences. One of them is the way poems portray the reality. The character of McKay’s poem speaks about himself, his experiences, impressions, intentions, and reflections. The thoughts and feelings of one individual are at the centre of the poem “America” while in the Hughes poem, the reality is portrayed through the eyes of different people. The readers associate themselves with these people and experiences powerful emotions. Another major difference is the orientation of the poems. As it is mentioned above, the poem “America” is oriented on the present and future which makes it more optimistic and life-asserting. The poem “Let America be America Again” deals mainly with the past and present. Little is being said about the future. The character of Hughes’s poem attempts to escape reality, he rejects it because of its flows. Another significant difference is emotional tone of the poems. McKay’s America is more active, life-asserting, optimistic, and encouraging because he concentrates on positive impressions and aspects. The emotional tone of Hughes “Let America be America Again” is melancholic. The character of the poem faces the wide variety of problems which makes him sad and disappointed. He loses faith in the American dream: “Except the dream that’s almost dead today” (Hughes). Thus, the recurring theme of McKay’s poem is fighting, while the main idea of Hughes’s work is not accepting the reality and dreaming about the better future. One more difference is the size of the poems. The poem “Let America be America Again” written by Hughes is bigger than McKay’s America; it has more details and elements of poetry, for example, repetitions. The level of detail elaboration is another aspect which makes the two poems different. McKay only mentions the acute social problems using symbols and metaphors, while Hughes describes all more or less significant social problems in detail. He writes about such issues as racial discrimination, slavery, exploitation of the poor by the rich, financial inequality, and many others. Such detailing also creates the gloomy mood of the poem because readers are presented with a long list of serious problems and each of them is difficult to solve.
Thus, Claude McKay and Langston Hughes are famous American poets and authors who lived and worked at the same time. Both of them took part in Harlem Renaissance and suffered from racial oppression and discrimination. McKay and Hughes wrote two poems which portray America with all its flaws, social problems, and virtues. Nevertheless, although both poems describe the life in America and social problems faced by people who live there, the two poems have different emotional tone. Both poets are patriots and give optimistic prognosis about the future of America but Hughes’s poem is more pessimistic and melancholic because he concentrates on the flaws of the society and negative sides of American reality more than on the positive ones as it does McKay. Moreover, Hughes portrays reality giving points of view of many people of different ethnical, racial, and cultural backgrounds, while the main character of McKay’s poem describes his own feelings, emotions, and thoughts. Hughes understands and appreciates the value of human lives; he encourages people to act and bring American dream back to life but these claims sound more like dreams rather than a plan for real actions. This makes the poem of McKay sound more inspiring because he exhorts to find strength in oppression and oppose the cruel world with dignity and courage.