Throughout Langston Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” the theme of roots is prominent and this theme gives rise to the ultimate meaning of the poem, even though the word “roots” itself is not used in the text. The textual details of the poem invoke strong imagery related to veins, rivers, and the roots of trees and give the reader a sense of the timelessness of these objects. Furthermore, through his use of language and images, Langston Hughes is able to create two meanings for the theme of roots since on the one hand they refer to the deep roots like trees have as well as “roots” in the historical and familial sense. Through these images and details, the reader begins to understand the complexity of the poem and it is clear that it addresses themes that are much larger than simply rivers or human veins—it is a statement on the whole of African-American history as it has flourished along rivers, which gave life and allowed “human veins” and firm historical roots.
In the short first stanza, the speaker in the poem by Langston Hughes states that he has “known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.” From this early point in the point in the poem, images of the canals of veins that run throughout the human body as well as similar images of rivers that wind around and are shaped like veins form our understanding that this poem is about more than blood or water, it is about roots and circuits. Like veins or rivers, roots run deep and twist irregularly through the medium in which they are planted. The ancient rivers the speaker talks of are like the blood in veins or the roots under trees because they provide sustenance and can give and support life. This is later supported when the speaker discusses early civilizations that thrived off the river system, thus the theme of “roots” has a dual meaning.
Although that will be addressed later in this analysis of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes, it is important to point out that after the first stanza there is a sentence that stands by itself for emphasis that simply states in one of the more important lines in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” This stand-alone line prefaces the issues that will be discussed in the following lines and makes the reader see that rivers are not like the long probing roots of a tree or human veins, but rivers are similar to the soul and, like Hughes’ quest for identity, never ending. When the speaker says that his soul is deep like the rivers, he is saying that because of this almost organic connection with the earth, he thrives and can understand. It is also significant that he says his soul has “grown” deep like the rivers since the idea that it “grows” further emphasizes the organic nature of knowledge and one’s soul. Like tree roots that extend far into the earth, the speaker is “nourished” by roots, both in physical terms (the rivers and human veins) as well as in the metaphorical sense.
This poetry analysis of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” shifts gears along with the poem by Langston Hughes in a new section. The third section changes the tone of the poem since it reverts to the first-person perspective. Although the reader knows it is impossible for one person to have lived in so many places and time periods at once, it is understood that the “I” being used is meant to represent hundreds of thousands of voices from the past to the present. The speaker says, “I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young / I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled it me to sleep” which makes the reader aware that the “ancient rivers” spoken of before are the “roots” both in terms of history as well as physically. The theme of rivers is continued in the following lines where the speaker details looking along the Nile and then hearing singing in Mississippi and New Orleans and it is clear that these are locations of particular importance in African and African-American history. The speaker seems to be equating survival with the rivers since, like veins and roots, the rivers provide nutrients (also in the metaphorical sense) necessary to survival and growth. Underlying all of these statements about rivers is the theme of roots. These rivers are all in separate locations and though they are like individual trees with separate root systems, they are of the same variety and can support and give life. Along with this idea is the fact that the roots of African and African-American history are not only within the people or the overarching soul of a group of people, but that they are within the souls that “have grown deep like the rivers” they have thrived along for centuries.
After the speaker has highlighted the many rivers important to the “roots” of the souls of people, there is another line break, which seems to be separated for added emphasis. The speaker states, “I’ve known rivers / Ancient, dusky rivers” and the whole theme of the roots of knowing and understanding are brought full circle. Just as when the speaker said his soul had “grown” deep, in this separated section when he says, “I’ve known” rivers he is making a reference to the roots of knowledge. Trees have been associated with knowledge from as early on as the Bible (the Tree of Knowledge) and the theme of roots he invokes here not only addresses the roots of history, circuits, and the soul, but also of knowledge and understanding. This knowledge he refers to is more akin to omniscient cultural knowledge and identity and the roots, which are fed by the metaphorical river and maintained by the human veins and bloodlines of generations. The speaker ends the poem with the repeated phrase, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” and after reading the stanzas that followed after the first time he stated it, the meaning is both clearer and more complex since we realize so many issues of history, the soul, culture, and understanding are being discussed.
By Nicole Smith