Our speaker introduces himself in the first line by telling us that he has known rivers and that his soul has come to be as deep as a river. Then he explains to us just how that transformation took place. He must be one ancient man, because he has been around for thousands of years. He used to go swimming the Euphrates River when Earth was just a baby. He lived near the Congo River in central Africa. He helped to build the pyramids in Egypt almost four thousand years ago. He heard the Mississippi River sing when President Abraham Lincoln took a boat ride down to New Orleans. He tells us again that he has known lots of ancient, dusky rivers, and that his soul has become as deep as these rivers.
Rivers are the superstars of this poem, and our speaker likens his soul to the rivers he has known in his lifetime. However, we know our speaker could not have lived through over four thousand years of history. In this way, our speaker comes to represent a community of individuals, and the rivers become a metaphor for the history, spirit, and wisdom of Africans and African-Americans. Through this metaphor, our speaker documents a history and a heritage.
Line 1: The “rivers” mentioned are part of an extended metaphor that likens the soul of the black community to the ancient, wise, and enduring great rivers of the earth.
Line 1 and Line 11: In these lines we hear the refrain of the line, “I’ve known rivers,” as it is repeated. In this way, the poem becomes cyclical and musical.
Line 2: The enjambment at the end of this line causes our eye to immediately and hungrily devour the beginning of the following line.
Line 2: Here, the speaker uses a simile to compare the age of the rivers to the age of the Earth: “ancient as the world.”
Line 3: In this line, the rivers become a metaphor for the rivers of blood that flow through human veins.
Line 4: Our speaker uses a simile to compare the depth of his soul to that of the rivers.
Line 4 and Line 13: Again we hear the refrain in the line, “my soul has grown deep like the rivers,” as it is repeated.
Line 5: We find an allusion here to the cradle of civilization as bordered by the Euphrates River.
Line 6: We come across another allusion here to the Congo River basin in central western Africa.
Line 6: The Congo River is personified as it has lulled our speaker to sleep like a mother singing a lullaby.
Line 7: We find yet another allusion to the Nile River and to the moment in history in which the pyramids were built.
Line 7: The speaker uses hyperbole when he says that he “raised the pyramids.” We know he couldn’t have built the one of the seven wonders of the world by himself.
Line 8: Again, we are presented with an allusion to the Mississippi River and to the moment in history when Abe Lincoln sailed down this river, witnessing the horrors of slavery.
Line 8: The Mississippi River is personified as the speaker describes its singing.
Line 8, Line 9, Line 10:Darkness
We notice how our speaker pays careful attention to darkness and light throughout. He describes the “muddy” Mississippi turn “golden” as the sun sets and as night looms large. He talks of “dusky rivers” and of nights sleeping near the Congo River. In this way, our speaker highlights the conversation of race that takes place in the poem as well as the interplay of confinement and freedom that weaves in and out of the history he tells.
Line 9: The “muddy” color of the Mississippi is a metaphor for skin color in the context of slavery, and it becomes “golden” when slavery is abolished and when slaves are freed.
Line 12: The “dusky” nature of the rivers is perhaps a metaphor for both skin color, but also the shadows and darkness that haunt our speaker’s past. The enjambment at the end of each of these lines again creates the sense of the rivers flow, and visually reflects the winding path of a great river.
Line 9 and 10: Here our speaker creates an image of the sun setting on the great Mississippi River, turning it to gold.
Line 10: The Mississippi River is again personified as it is described as having a “bosom,” granting it feminine, maternal qualities.
Rhyme, Form & Meter
True, there may be no rhyming going on in this poem, but don’t let that fool you. Hughes is pulling out all of the stops to create a poem that is as full of sound and movement as a raging river. The lines “I’ve known rivers” and “my soul has grown deep like the rivers” are each repeated (once at the beginning and once at the end of the poem), and in this way, the poem has a cyclical feel to it. It’s as though these lines are magical words that help us enter the poem and that help us leave the poem. Our speaker also gets a bit repetitive in lines 5-8, for each sentence begins with the pronoun “I” and a verb: “I bathed,” “I built,” “I looked,” “I heard.” Are there any similarities between these verbs?
If we look closely, we can see how the poem is composed of three parts or three landscapes. There’s the “I’ve known rivers” section, the “my soul has grown deep as rivers” section,” and the world’s greatest rivers section. The first two sections are echoed at the end of the poem. The third section sits solidly in the middle of the poem and is not repeated. How does this structure influence how you read or understand the poem?
Enjambment also features largely throughout, and lines get cut off abruptly, forcing our eye to madly search for the next thought at the beginning of the next line. Our eyes are constantly moving in zigzagging fashion as we read this poem, and that zigzag motion looks to us to be very similar to the way a river winds and bends its way through the earth.
Take a look at lines 8 through 10, the Mississippi River lines. Notice how lines 9 and 10 are indented. Why do you think this is? Why do you suppose line 3 is also indented? What, if anything, does this poem look like to you on the page?
Lastly, we cannot help but to notice the similarity between Langston Hughes’ poetic style and that of Walt Whitman. We know that Whitman was one of Hughes’ favorite poets of all time, and we hear this influence in the everyday, colloquial manner in which our speaker speaks, and we hear this influence in the prominence of the first person, as in the frequency of the word “I.”
Speaker Point of View
Who is the speaker, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him?
Our speaker is a wise, old man with a lot of stories to tell. We imagine him surrounded by a flock of grandchildren at one moment, eyes twinkling, telling rich stories about ancestors and about the family’s history. He also seems to us to be like an ancient and respected professor, standing at a podium before a sea of eager students. He tells them of all of the places he has visited and all of the world events he has witnessed. Indeed, our speaker is a world traveler, a man with a time machine. He has seen the birth of civilization, he has helped to build the pyramids, and he has seen the abolishment of slavery.
There’s a music to the way our speaker speaks, as though he’s singing a song, saying a prayer, or leading a service. For some reason, we can’t help but think of that ancient Greek poet, Homer, who had epic stories like The Odyssey memorized and who would recite them for his audiences (in the days before iTunes, CDs, and even books).
Even though our speaker tells us about what he has seen and done using strong and specific “I” statements [“I bathed” (5), “I built” (6), “I looked” (7), “I heard” (8)] we wonder if there might not be many people behind the “I” in this poem. Could it be that there are multiple speakers? Or perhaps there are many voices behind each line of the poem?
A positively global setting we have here. We glance out of our spaceship window at the beautiful planet Earth. When our speaker speaks of “rivers” we see some of the world’s biggest rivers slicing through continents like so many pieces of thread. Our speaker gets specific, and we travel to the Euphrates River, which (along with the Tigris River) forms the cradle of human civilization in the Middle East (hanging gardens of Babylon, anyone?). After that, we move to the rainforests of central western Africa where the Congo River sings us to sleep. Shortly thereafter we zoom to Egypt where the Nile River is crowded with boats bearing granite and limestone to build the pyramids. Lastly, we snake down the wide, winding Mississippi River, laden with catfish. We catch a glimpse of a nineteen year-old Abe Lincoln on a flatboat in the middle of this muddy river. We watch him witness slavery for the first time in 1829.
The sounds of this poem are almost as powerful as the images themselves. We hear our speaker splash around in the Euphrates. We can hear the rushing water of the Nile.
What’s Up With the Title?
We hear a voice in this title. The voice seems to be that of an onlooker who is listening to a person speak of rivers. We imagine this onlooker to be part of a crowded room or hall, watching “the Negro” deliver a speech or sermon. The verb “speaks” is in the present tense, making us feel as though we’ve come across a current event, a revolutionary moment.
This title instantly time-machines us to the early 20th century when the “negro” was the term of self-identification that the black community in America adopted for itself. This self-identification and self-naming allowed the black community to claim identity and to celebrate their national presence at a time when slavery was a not-so-distant memory and when acts of racism and intolerance occurred frequently. While this term was rejected during Civil Rights era and throughout the ’60s, Langston Hughes was a contemporary of the major activists W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey, and was responding to the social movements of his time. The presence of this term in the title immediately lets us know that the following poem will treat the black experience. We find it noteworthy, however, that this term only appears in the title, thus placing emphasis on the universal nature of the ideas that it treats.
Langston Hughes’s Calling Card-What is the poet’s signature style?
Music and Celebration of African-American Identity
Hughes was heavily influenced by the Blues, Jazz, and African spirituals that filled his life while he was growing up. As a young boy in Kansas, he was exposed to the rich tradition of black folk songs that had evolved from the song culture of slaves. While attending Columbia University from 1922 to 1923, Hughes was introduced to a different kind of Blues music as he heard greats like Ethyl Waters and Bessie Smith sing at various clubs in Harlem (source). As a result, his poems contain heavy musical and rhythmic elements, making you almost want to sing them out loud or tap your foot.
Hughes was also considered to be the poet laureate (the king of poetry) during the Harlem Renaissance (a period of incredible artistic innovation and collaboration in Harlem, New York during the early 20th century). Strongly influenced by great minds like W.E.B. DuBois, Hughes became a voice for the black community, compelling this community to take pride in their heritage, their culture, their disparate voices, and their achievements. His poems often serve as rallying calls for the black community, pin pointing racism while taking great pride in the black community.
Allusions & Cultural References
When poets refer to other great works, people, and events, it’s usually not accidental. Put on your super-sleuth hat and figure out why.Historical references in the poem are:
1.Abraham Lincoln (8)
2.The construction of the pyramids in Egypt (7)
- Poem Analysis of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes for Waec/neco Literature Exams (108) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)