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Pranav Singh
Professor Stephanie Hollenbeck
ENGL 1102
06/19/2016

Langston Hughes Trumpet Player: Suffering and Music

Part I: Scansion and Analysis


In Trumpet Player, Langston Hughes reflects on how music can ameliorate the
suffering endured through hardships but that the painful memories of those hardships never truly
fade away. A prolific African American poet of the first half of the 20th century, many of
Langston Hughes works voiced the emotions of the Harlem Renaissance movement in the
1930s. His poem Trumpet Player reflects on how African Americans continued to suffer from
the effects of slavery even after its abolishment and embraced music as a means to ease the pain
of their memories.
Hughes poem is composed of four eight-line stanzas followed by two six-line stanzas.
The poem does not adhere to standard English conventions, abstaining from all punctuation
except for two em dashes. Furthermore, the poem uses capitalization in odd places heavily in the
first stanza but significantly less in the remaining stanzas. In the third stanza, in which the author
deals with the nature of music, there is a notable absence of any capitalization at all. The first,
second, and fifth stanzas adhere to a similar structure, each consisting of a single sentence
written in free verse. The third and fourth stanzas are also similar in structure, each consisting of
two parallel sentences. However, even amongst these groupings, the stanzas vary greatly in other
stylistic aspects. For instance, the lengths of their corresponding lines and their use of

capitalization varies. Furthermore, whereas the fourth and eighth lines rhyme with one another in
the four eight-line stanzas, the final two six-line stanzas have no clear rhyming scheme. The
poem also does not adhere to a clear meter and is written in free verse. The many variations in
style give the poem an impression of a highly improvised jazz performance. This reflects the
poems musical motif and alludes to the influences of the African American music styles that
arose from the Harlem Renaissance.
Part II: Explication
While our memories of the past may fade with time, they never truly leave us completely.
Langston Hughes poem reinforces the idea that reminders of past suffering will always be there,
and that, while you cannot change the past, you can find ways to ease the pain. One way of doing
so that the poem discusses is through music. The speaker uses devices such as imagery,
enjambment, and repetition to convey the theme of the lingering nature of memories and the
temporary relief that music offers in dealing with their pain.
The poem uses vivid imagery to paint the emotions of its subject as he struggles to keep
his painful memories at bay. The subject of the poem is literally stated by its title. In the first
stanza, the trumpet player is described as having dark moons of weariness / Beneath his eyes,
telling the reader early on that the subject is more than just tired (3-4). The following lines paint
an image of the depths of his eyes where the smoldering memory / of slave ships / Blazed to the
crack of whips / about thighs (5-8). This metaphor alludes to Americas history of slavery and
the inhuman conditions under which slaves were forced to labor away on ships that sold them off
as property. From this metaphor, the speaker also makes it clear that these are not memories
fading away with the past but are rather blazed and smoldering.

The literary device of enjambment is used heavily throughout the poem to serve two main
functions. The first and clearest of the functions is to build on the motif of a jazz performance, in
which musicians depart from conventional rhythms and instead pick up from where one player
left off, either mirroring the rhythm with their own variations or building a wholly new rhythm
part-way through the performance. In this sense, while the poems speaker mentions the trumpet
player in third person, the poems use of enjambment gives a sense that the speaker is in fact
relaying what he hears from the trumpet players jazz performance unto the reader.
The two lines The Negro / With the trumpet at his lips are repeated, with a few
differences in capitalization, at the start of the first, second, and fifth stanzas (1-2, 9-10, 33-34).
The repetition of this image serves as both a reminder to the persistence of the painful memories
that trouble the trumpet player and a way to reinforce his embracement of music to ameliorate
that pain. It is interesting to note the conflicting tones this image produces. On the one hand, his
love for music can be viewed in a positive light for its ameliorative properties. However, the
repetition of these two lines also hints that the trumpet player has in some ways become
dependent on music, without which his sanity would be in trouble. This idea is reaffirmed by the
third, in which the speaker states, the rhythm / from the trumpet at his lips / is ecstasy / distilled
from old desires, referring to his lingering desire that is longing for the sea / where the seas
a bar-glass / sucker size (21-24, 29-32). This indicates that he had indulged in alcohol in the
past as a means to drown his pain, before embracing music for the relief it brought. Furthermore,
the final stanza describes music as a hypodermic needle / to his soul, alluding that he has a
drug-like addition to music (39-40). Without music, the trumpet player is likely to be
overwhelmed by his painful memories. Moreover, the ending lines of the poem, as the tune

comes from his throat / trouble / mellows to a golden note, reaffirm the central idea that the
troubles of the past will continue to be on his mind despite his attempts to subdue them (42-44).

Works Cited
Hughes, Langston. Trumpet Player. All Poetry. N.p., 12 April 2012. Web. 19 June 2016.