by Jo Ann McLauchlin
April 2008

Not only are all poems distinct, but they stress ideas, they influence ideas, they repeat ideas, they start new ideas.  Two of the most outstanding and inspiring poets of the 1940s were e.e. cummings and Langston Hughes.  Their poems, “[plato told]” and “Freedom Train,” both express different ideas and issues that concerned the people of the 1940s: war and race.  Though each author has a very different style from the other, they both effectively use various literary devices to bring these decade-related issues of war or race to the forefront, particularly to inspire reform.

“[plato told]” is about a man who goes off to war and dies.  The speaker attempts to explain and illustrate to the subject, as well as the audience, the horrors and realities of war to the subject using the philosophies and ideas of historical figures who believe that war is harmful, dangerous, wrong, or painful.  The subject of the poem finally realizes his mistake when he is killed.

Throughout “[plato told],” the subject is being warned against his decision to go to war by various people, historical figures, his family, and friends. In “[plato told],” cummings makes allusions to many famous people throughout history who know about the hardships and perils of war.  These people include Plato, Jesus, Lao Tsze, and General Sherman.  The first three figures are known in history for more or less being philosophers and or founders of religions, all of them believing in peace and avoiding war.  Sherman, despite the fact that he was one of the most notorious soldiers of the Civil War, said famously that “War is hell” (cummings footnote 1).  Obviously all four of these figures believed that war did come at a price and was wrong to some extent.  The importance of highlighting these figures as he does is to show that war has spanned the generations.  Every time wars occurred, people regretted it and experienced much pain throughout, whether their side won or lost.  The speaker’s subject in this poem lost the greatest thing of all: his life.  cummings’ use of allusion helps show that even up until the Second World War, many still disagreed with any type of war, not because of their lack of nationalism, but because too often it was always much more painful than it was worth.

cummings uses parallel structure effectively to emphasize war’s anguish and atrocities in this very short poem.  He repeats the phrase “he told:” “[someone] told him; he couldn’t believe it.”  He substitutes famous people for “the someone”, like Plato and Jesus, and later on uses people personally familiar to the boy to whom the poem is directed towards, namely the speaker and the boy’s family and friends.  The structure emphasizes the fact that no matter who warned the subject about the troubles of war it did not matter.  It would be a message that sank in too late.  Nonetheless, the main point cummings makes is that war is always something very painful, but sometimes this lesson is learned too late. This message comes across effectively in the poem to the reader.

While cummings’ poem is not very lengthy, his intense imagery makes his message heard.  cummings plainly states that “…it took/ a nipponized bit of/ the old sixth/ avenue/ el, in the top of his head:to tell/ him” (20-25).  A bullet was shot through this man’s head.  That is pretty graphic, no matter how it is described.  cummings implants that image into the reader’s mind by stating his words bluntly to better illustrate that war can change everything in one second.

Though he is warned against war, the subject does not take any of this advice.  His death from a bullet that was made from American metal sold by the Japanese, however, signifies the pure irony of the situation (cummings footnote 2).  Everyone warned him of the dangers of his choice, buthe ignored these warnings and was killed by a bullet made from metal from his own nation for whom he was fighting.  It is sadly too fitting that he would die after all of those warnings not to go in the first place.

“[plato told]” takes the issue of war and emphasizes it in all the right places, showing the audience that war is never the best policy.  As cummings does with war, so does Hughes with the issue of race that was faced by African-Americans during this same time period.

“Freedom Train” talks about the speaker’s frustration with the still-existing segregation in the United States.  He states his annoyance with the fact that there are still separate entrances for blacks and whites and with even smaller issues than this.  Nonetheless, he ends his poem with high hopes for the future, praying that one day there really will be a freedom train.

To better fuel and strengthen his argument, Hughes uses an allusion that becomes the primary metaphor throughout his poem.  He refers to the real Freedom Train that traveled across the nation after the Second World War.  Inside  this actual train were all of the major United States historical documents.  These documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, were exhibited in 300 cities around the nation.  However, some people might not have realized that there was an actual Freedom Train.  Though this actual train contained significant documents about freedom, the process of becoming free was a different story.

By incorporating parallel structure into his poem, Hughes demonstrates how desperately he wants there to be an sense of equality among all people regardless of race.  The first four lines contain this literary device: “I read in the papers about the/ Freedom Train./ I heard on the radio about the/ Freedom Train./ I seen folks talking about the/ Freedom Train./ Lord, I’ve been a-waitin for the/ Freedom Train!” (Hughes 1-8).  Here Hughes is stressing the anticipation and excitement of the coming Freedom Train.  As the poem continues, he uses parallel structure to voice his disappointment with the Freedom Train.  “Who is the engineer on the Freedom Train/ Can a coal-black man drive the Freedom Train/ Or am I still a porter on the Freedom Train?” (Hughes 17-19).  Hughes uses this pattern to state his frustration with how skin color is still an issue, even on the Freedom Train.  These points and more are accentuated by the way Hughes structures his poem.  Furthermore, it stresses how much of an issue race and skin color really were during the 1940s.

Hughes effectively uses the image of a train “…zoomin’ down the track/ Gleamin’ in the sun…” (Hughes 49-50).  Even though this quotation is a smaller part of another message, the image of the train is very strong and almost majestic.  Speed causes one to think of power and strength, and gleaming means light, which indicates hope and also beauty. Not only does this train signify strength and hope, but the train is also a symbol of freedom, a virtue that contains within it both strength and hope.  Therefore, the train is symbolic.  The train represents not only the actual Freedom Train from the late 40s but also the hope that one day there would be a real freedom train that blacks and white could enter together, ride together, sit together in.

Hughes writes about a “Freedom Train” that separates the blacks and whites into different lines in order to enter the train.  These lines in the poem express the irony very well: “The Birmingham station’s marked COLORED and WHITE./ The white folks go left, the colored go right – / They even got a segregated lane./ Is that the way to get aboard the Freedom Train?” (Hughes 25-30).  Hughes highlights this poignant paradox: even though the train contains foundational symbols of America’s freedom, it seems that freedom will need to refrain from ringing for some of its citizens.

Both cummings and Hughes effectively present their issues of war and race to their audiences, emphasizing their points in their own creative ways.  After studying both of the poems, it is easy to see how much each author really wanted to inspire reform through their art.  Keeping in mind that these poems are both from the 1940s, one can deduce that these serious issues of the decade were not going to be something easily solved but hopefully reformed over time with the help of writers like themselves.

Works Cited

cummings, e.e.“[plato told].”  The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Ed. Paul Lauter. Volume 2, 4th edition.   Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2002.  1359.

Hughes, Langston.  “Freedom Train.”  The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Ed. Paul Lauter. Volume 2, 4th edition.   Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2002.  1606.

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