‘Suicide’s Note’ by Langston Hughes is a short, three-line poem that is contained within one stanza. The lines themselves are also short. In total, there are only twelve words in the whole poem. Hughes did not choose to make use of a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern in ‘Suicide Note’. But, even though the poem is succinct, he did use a couple of poetic techniques.
Summary of Suicide’s Note
The poem begins with the speaker using two short words to describe the atmosphere, “The calm”. This phrase speaks to the atmosphere the speaker experienced, as well as that in the poem itself. The speaker describes how he stood before a river and looked down into its waters. ‘Suicide’s Note’ concludes with the river’s “Cool face” asking the speaker “for a kiss”. It is unclear whether or not he accepted, but considering the title, he most likely did.
These techniques include alliteration and enjambment. The first occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “calm” and “cool” in the first and second lines.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. This occurs once in ‘Suicide’s Note’ between the second and third lines. The revelation held within the third line is made all the more impactful by the line break after “river”.
‘Suicide’s Note’ tackles a few of Hughes’s most commonly addressed themes, life, hopelessness, suicide and death. Suicide, because of the title, is the most prominent of the four. In this text, taking one’s life is depicted as a peaceful, “calm” act. The speaker in the poem could’ve if he wanted, given into this feeling and stepped into the river.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Suicide’s Note
The first line of ‘Suicide’s Note’ is only two words long, but they’re striking. Hughes sets the scene for the reader by describing something as “The calm”. Since there are no prior details or explanations to help one understand what is “calm,” or where this “calm” state is taking place, a reader has to make their own assumptions. “The calm” seems to refer to a general sense of being, or maybe a force that comes over one’s body and mind in a peaceful moment. For instance, it is easy to imagine someone saying “the calm washed over the scene”. In this case, the calm is revealed to be all around the speaker. But, it is most prominent in “the river”.
This body of water, which exists in a void with no additional details, holds all the feelings of peace the speaker is looking for. At this point, and perhaps even by the time a reader gets to the end of the poem, it is an appealing place or state of being.
When the speaker looks into the river he sees it as having a “Cool face”. This is a reference to the temperature of the water. By personifying the water (giving it a face as a human would have) Hughes is trying to create a certain emotion within the reader. Overwhelmingly, the tone of this piece is meditative and relaxed. The speaker, who is relaying his experience through three short lines, delivers them calmly. They’re simple statements but are free from agitation or impatience.
The most interesting part of this line is the fact that the river is looking back up at the speaker. There is a connection between them, and as the entire poem alludes to, an understanding.
It is in the final line that a reader will remember the title of the poem, ‘Suicide’s Note’. With its humanized face, the river encourages the speaker to lean down and touch his own face to the water. At least, that’s what the line is saying on the surface. When one considers the title the act becomes much darker. It is clear the river is asking him to submerge himself and allow his body to sink down into its depths.
The river is promoting a closeness between the speaker and itself that will conclude with the speaker’s death. But, one might ask, is it really doing this? The answer is likely no. Hughes, or the speaker through which he told this story, was pondering suicide and found himself by the side of this river. With the calm surrounding them, and the river beckoning, he may or may not have allowed himself to “kiss” its surface.
One final aspect of the text that’s interesting to consider is whether or not the speaker chose to enter into the river. The ending is far from definitive, and it is very possible this speaker was describing his experience from beyond the grave. But, there’s no way to really know.