What happens to a dream deferred?

The speaker opens the poem with this line, which asks the question that drives the rest of the text. Notably, this line appears as its own stanza, and the poem’s ten remaining lines, broken into three stanzas, appear indented below it. The fact that the rest of the poem is indented puts visual emphasis on this opening line. This emphasis suggests that rest of the poem will attempt to answer the question asked in the first line. Another noteworthy aspect of this opening line is its tone of detached generality. The speaker doesn’t seem to be asking about any particular dream, just a dream. The detached quality of the question makes the speaker seem somewhat disinterested, as if they were discussing a philosophical abstraction. Put differently, the speaker’s apparent detachment gives the opening question a strongly rhetorical feel, as if the query is merely hypothetical. The rest of the poem unfolds through a series of rhetorical questions that sustain the initial sense of detachment.

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

These lines (lines 9–10) make up the poem’s third stanza. Significantly, the utterance in these lines is the only sentence in the entire poem that the speaker doesn’t phrase as a question. This fact alone makes the statement noteworthy. But even more important is the effect created by the shift from the use of rhetorical questions to this statement. The rhetorical questions that make up the bulk of the poem have a strongly anticipatory feeling. Because the speaker doesn’t really know what will happen to a dream deferred, every outcome they list is invested with possibility. For this reason, the use of rhetorical questions implies a sense of energy and attentiveness regarding what’s to come. This energetic attentiveness wanes momentarily when the speaker shifts from the interrogative mood of questions to the indicative mood of statements: “Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load.” Like the use of questions, the use of the modal verb “maybe” suggests a degree of uncertainty. But there’s a distinctly downcast and dispirited tone that enters the speaker’s speech here, as though they are disappointed to imagine that a dream deferred might just sag lifelessly.

Or does it explode?

This line  (line 11) closes the poem, and Hughes highlighted its significance by placing it in italics. In addition to the italics, there are several things worth noting about this line. First is its position in the poem. This line comes immediately after the only sentence in the poem that the speaker doesn’t phrase as a question: “Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load” (lines 9–10). These lines have a particularly dispirited tone, as if the speaker feels downcast at the possibility that the deferred dream might just collapse lifelessly. As a direct counterpoint to this image of a slumped-over sack, the speaker returns to their earlier, rhetorical mode to ask the closing question: “Or does it explode?” In contrast to the lifeless load, the speaker now entertains the possibility that the deferred dream might explode with a sudden release of energy. The speaker clearly feels electrified by this possibility, as indicated by the italics. But it remains ambiguous whether the speaker feels excited or terrified by the possibility. Likewise, it remains ambiguous what the explosion they envision really signifies. Is it a destructive outburst of violence and chaos? Or is it a generative act of self-liberation?