It is for this reason that poem is called ‘Life is Fine’, with fine being the operative word. The narrator doesn’t believe that life is wondrous they have seen life’s darker side and decided that they still want to live. But they are clearly only partially sold on the beauty and splendor of life.
Form and Tone
‘Life is Fine’ is free verse and is separated into 9 stanzas. There is a consistent pattern with two quatrains being followed by a single line. The singular line, whilst different every time follows a similar pattern. Almost acting in the way you would expect a refrain to act. In each quatrain, the second and fourth lines rhyme with one another. This gives the poem an unexpected and playful feel despite being a bit gloomy in its content. The poem comes across as tongue-in-cheek.
Analysis of Life is Fine
I went down to the river,
So I jumped in and sank.
In this opening stanza of the poem, which can be read in full here, the narrator claims that they went down to a river. The reason for doing this is unclear. But as the stanza progresses they claim that they went there to think. Perhaps they figured that being around nature was a way to clear their mind. Often people will go to an area of natural beauty in order to attempt to do this. The reference to trying to think and not being able to may suggest that the narrator is suffering from depression. Depression sufferers often report feeling listless and having a racing mind that makes isolating thoughts difficult. This would certainly be consistent with the fact that they are contemplating taking their life and fits well with the theme of the poem.
I came up once and hollered!
I might’ve sunk and died.
The first two lines of this stanza give the impression that the narrator is in fact drowning. They paint a picture of them coming up for air due to the use of exclamation marks. As the poem continues we see that these lines are paraphrased throughout the poem. Hollering gives a suggestion of a call for help and the use of the word crying throughout could once again be a reference to the idea that the narrator is a depression sufferer. What is amusing about this stanza is the concept of the narrator’s suicide attempt being interrupted by the fact that the water is cold. What is interesting here is that many depression sufferers have suicidal thoughts but don’t go through with them as they fear pain. Clearly, this guy’s mental anguish is not as prominent as the physical pain from their suicide attempt.
But it was Cold in that water! It was cold!
This line repeats the sentiment about the water temperature as if the narrator is trying to justify not going ahead with their attempted suicide. This in itself is quite amusing as most people would be trying to justify the idea of taking their life in the first place, not the fact that they didn’t go ahead with it.
I took the elevator
And thought I would jump down.
This stanza starts with the narrator taking the elevator up to a high floor with the insinuation being that they are going to jump off the sixteenth floor. This continues the theme of committing suicide but what is really interesting about this stanza is the third line “I thought about my baby” The meaning of this is unclear. Is the narrator using the term baby as a term of endearment for a partner or more probably an ex-partner of it is literally referencing a child. I think it being a reference to an ex is the most likely answer.
I stood there and I hollered!
I might’ve jumped and died.
These lines almost mirror the first two lines of the second stanza but have been altered slightly as now the narrator is standing atop a building rather than swimming in a river. On the face of it, the height prompts yet another moment of cowardice and the narrator refuses to jump, presumably to their own death. But the word high could signify a subtle double entendre here. Perhaps they are feeling somewhat elated and therefore reconsidered. I think this is unlikely but worth mentioning.
But it was High up there! It was high!
Again we see a one-line stanza repeating a pattern set with the first three stanzas and once again the content of this line follows the pattern repeating what had been said in the third line of the previous stanza, albeit in a paraphrased manner.
So since I’m still here livin’,
But for livin’ I was born
In this stanza, it seems to confirm that the baby that was previously referenced was a love interest. The narrator seemingly reluctantly decides that they will carry on living before claiming that they could have died for love. This phrase raises all sorts of questions. Why would they die for love? To make the other person feel guilty perhaps. Or maybe it’s just because they feel that they can’t continue living without the other person. It’s hard to know with a line that is so ambiguous.
Though you may hear me holler,
If you gonna see me die.
In this penultimate stanza, the narrator seems almost defiant. It is like they are saying they are down but not out. This stanza seems to be addressed directly at their loved one, their baby. They are effectively saying that they have not been broken. That they will show their partner and the world that they are upset but that they have not been destroyed. If the poem ended here it would seem to be an entirely positive poem that chronicles a person dealing with and overcoming their suicidal urges.
Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!
Although this line roughly follows the pre-existing pattern it slightly subverts it. Adding the comment about wine may just hint that the narrator is self-medicating themselves. Does this undo the positive vibe? Drinking to deal with the pain is a destructive road itself. This means the poem leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
About Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes was an American poet and equality activist that was born in Missouri. He championed a style of poetry known as Jazz poetry. Literary experts believe that Hughes was a closeted homosexual and that this informed some of his poems as he included hints to this in his poetry ala Walt Whitman, who incidentally Hughes cited as an influence on his own career. Hughes was a fan of the idea of communism as an alternative to what he saw as an oppressive form of government in the US.