Literature and the Real "World"

October 19, 2009

Sylvester’s Dying Bed

Filed under: Uncategorized — nataliegath @ 4:25 pm

Sylvester’s Dying Bed

by Langston Hughes


I woke up this mornin’ A

’Bout half-past three. B

All the womens in town C

Was gathered round me. B


Sweet gals was a-moanin’, D

“Sylvester’s gonna die!” E

And a hundred pretty mamas F

Bowed their heads to cry. E


I woke up little later G

’Bout half-past fo’, H

The doctor ‘n’ undertaker’s I

Both at ma do’. H


Black gals was a-beggin’, J

“You can’t leave us here!” K

Brown-skins cryin’, “Daddy! L

Honey! Baby! Don’t go, dear!” K


But I felt ma time’s a-comin’, M

And I know’d I’s dyin’ fast. N

I seed the River Jerden O

A-creepin’ muddy past—N

But I’s still Sweet Papa ’Vester, P

Yes, sir! Long as life do last! N


So I hollers, “Com’ere, babies, Q

Fo’ to love yo’ daddy right!” R

And I reaches up to hug ’em— S

When the Lawd put out the light. R


Then everything was darkness T

In a great … big … night. R


Of all the poems assigned for next class, this one was one of my favorites. Langston Hughes’ style in this poem is really unique in that he managed to capture the way some of the people around him talked without making it totally incomprehensible to a reader that might not be as familiar with it. For example, as I was reading this poem, not only was I able to tell what was being said the whole way through, I felt as if the style of shortening words and using… let’s just call it “creative” grammar… fit well with the subject and the other elements of the poem.

This poem is written in a series of four quatrains, a sestet, another quatrain, and a couplet. The rhyme scheme is ABCB, DEFE, etc for the first four quatrains, but then it is changed up in the sestet to become MNONPN, which is a pretty unique rhyme pattern which may have something to do with the fact that it’s rather challenging to rhyme “Sylvester” with much of anything. After that stanza, the rhyme changes to QRSRTR, bridging the gap between the last two stanzas and unifying them with the rhyming of “right”, “light”, and “night”. Also, it is the same rhyme scheme as the sestet before it, (with different rhymed sounds, but the same pattern) which I would call a form of parallelism. I also thought it was kind of interesting that, rather than just rhyming the words “four” and “door” in the third stanza, Hughes chose to shorten them to “fo’” and “do’”- which still rhyme. It does seem to fit better with the overall tone of the poem that way, so I can see why he made that choice.

For the first four stanzas of the poem, I felt as though the tone was actually bordering on cheerful, like maybe the speaker of the poem wasn’t dying after all and was going to make a miraculous recovery later on in the poem. After all, there are no words in the first part of the poem to imply that Sylvester is in pain or is in any way feeling sick. It seemed, in the first stanza, as if the speaker had just woken up on a normal day and that, aside from there being crowds of strange women hovering over his bed, Sylvester’s life was going on as usual. But by the time the fifth stanza comes along, it’s clear that Sylvester is in fact dying, though Hughes never tells us what from, because of how the speaker claims to see the River Jordan, which is frequently used to signify death, the final crossing from one life to the next.

The tone of the poem, though, still manages to be fairly upbeat, despite the subject matter, because of how the speaker recalls that he is “still Sweet Papa ‘Vester” and decides to make the most of what time he has left. It seems as though the poem is going to end with some heartfelt words being exchanged between the speaker and his family, a touching scene. But then, all of a sudden, the poem takes a sad turn when Sylvester abruptly dies in the last line of stanza six, not even having the chance to hug his children for the last time. Sylvester is ripped away from his family and friends and left floating in darkness, all alone. The last stanza itself actually parallels this, because of how it is isolated from the rest of the poem, small in comparison, all alone. The poem ends with an interesting structure in that there are ellipses between great, big, and night. If we say that the constant, hard-hitting rhythm of the rest of the poem represents Sylvester’s heartbeat, the end of the poem, where Sylvester’s heart stops, parallels the subject matter in its form, using ellipses to force the rhythm of the poem to slow down until it finally comes to a stop. In the end, both Sylvester’s life and the poem end simultaneously, an unusual device that is just one last example of the greatness of the poem as a whole.

-Natalie Gath

P.S. Sorry about adding the numbers in between stanzas. Those weren’t there originally, but in order for the blog to stop reformatting the poem so that the stanzas were no longer separated, I had to add something in between.

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  1. I really like and agree with your interpretation of the poem. I like how you used ABC and so on to show which lines rhyme together so i could visually see the rhyming pattern. I agree that the dialect Hughes used, gave the poem a still somewhat upbeat tone even though it has to do with death and his family members crying all around him. And thanks for the clarification on what the River of Jordan was!

    Comment by AmandaDiep — October 19, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

  2. I didnt even think about the rhythm of the poem parelleling Sylvester’s heartbeat as he is slowly dieing. I think that is very insightful. I almost interpreted Sylvester as somewhat content with dying in the first few stanzas. Also, I didnt know much about the River of Jordan and what that symbolized.

    Comment by lmcfadden — October 20, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

  3. This is also my favorite poem out of all the rest assigned so far. After you pointed out that the rhythm of the poem reflects Sylvester’s heartbeat, I went back and read the poem again. The last line “In a great … big … night” would be his last breath. That is why it’s short and faint, he is fighting for his last breath to have a good look at his children.

    Comment by amylai422 — October 20, 2009 @ 11:12 pm

  4. I also think this is one of my favorite poems so far. It’s a really easy read plus it isn’t too hard to understand. The way he writes this poem is ironic because his voice in the poem is so upbeat but he is actually lying in his death bed with all his family members mourning around him as he dies.

    Comment by kannaw — October 21, 2009 @ 2:52 am

  5. Echoing what all the others have said, this has also been one of my favorite poems to read. Your formal analysis of this poem was great, and I enjoyed reading it as I discovered things about the poem that I hadn’t originally interpreted. In particular I enjoyed the use of the ellipses in the last line to slow down the poem and to signify the slowing and stopping of the heartbeat. Hughes’ use of “creative” grammar made the poem especially fun for me because it took away some of the traditional formality seen in some poems, yet as you mentioned does not take away from the substance of the poem as a whole.

    Comment by parkerg — October 21, 2009 @ 9:31 am

  6. The upbeat nature really says a lot about the speaker’s state. Like you said, he’s trying to make the most of his final moments. He appears to be in the final stage of grief; acceptance; which follows all the rest of the stages; denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. Here, he has finally realized the inevitability of the situation, and is, at last, at peace with himself.

    Comment by Ian Hurd — October 21, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

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