Figurative language in poetry is like the spice that makes readers hungry to learn more and internalize the poem's message. "As I Grew Older" by Langston Hughes uses some of these devices to bring life to his writing. In this poem, Hughes describes his struggle to reclaim the dreams of his youth while bemoaning his ability to break through the barrier his race had erected before him.
Perhaps the most overarching example of figurative language in this poem is the metaphor, or implied comparison, of light and shadow to dreams and walls. The light represents the narrator's dream that he had before he "grew older." The shadow of the wall obscuring that light represents the prejudice of others toward the narrator's race. The narrator begs for his hands to smash the wall of prejudice and reach once again for the light of his dream.
The imagery -- or the way the writer appeals to the reader’s senses -- in this poem revolves around its central metaphor. The narrator carefully describes the wall as it "rose until it touched the sky" so that it was "Dimming / Hiding, / The light of my dream." He also uses descriptive phrases such as "shatter this darkness," "smash this night," and "a thousand whirling dreams" to appeal to the reader's emotions and sense of vision, hearing and touch. These evocative lines make it easier to imagine the scene the narrator is describing.
In addition to the actual content of the poem, the poem's rhythm emphasizes certain points and urges the reader to continue reading. For example, the parallel phrases "to shatter this darkness, / To smash this night, / To break this shadow" show the intensity of narrator’s feelings about his need to break through the wall of discrimination and prejudice to reach his dream once again. In addition, the rhythmic repetition of the words "rose" and "slowly" in the lines "And then the wall rose, / Rose slowly, / Slowly / ... Rose slowly, slowly ..." help the reader feel the sluggish pace of the wall's rising, which illustrates how the narrator came to this realization very gradually, over time -- a fact that also explains why the poem's title is "As I Grew Older."
Other Figurative Language
The poem contains smaller instances of other figurative language as well. For example, the image in the third stanza of the wall rising until it touches the sky, could arguably be classified as personification (in which an object is given human attributes). The light of his dream being "like the sun" would be a simile, since it uses the word "like" to compare two different entities. In addition, the narrator directly addresses his hands in an apostrophe, or a statement addressed to an object that cannot actually listen.