Langston Hughes famously wrote ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ when he was only seventeen years old. He was on a train crossing the Mississippi River on the way to see his father in Mexico. Since then, the poem has become one of his best-known and most commonly quoted. It was provided inspiration for fellow poets and artists who have also used the image of the river to depict Black perseverance and strength.
Explore The Negro Speaks of Rivers
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he knows rivers very well. There are a few in particular he wants to share with the reader. All of them are among the largest and longest on the planet. They have also all played host to some of the most important historical events and civilizations on the planet. The speaker has seen humankind’s first moments alongside the Euphrates, participated in the building of the pyramids, and listened to the Mississippi while Abraham Lincoln was sibling down it.
The poem concludes with a repetition of the opening lines, making sure a reader is aware of the speaker’s deep connection to the bodies of water.
You can read the full poem here.
Hughes engages with themes of identity and perseverance in ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers.’ Both of these themes are common in Hughes’ poetry. He often emphasizes the history of Black men and women and what they’ve had to endure throughout the centuries of slavery and discrimination in America. The poem proudly and directly asserts that Black lineage is strong, longlasting, and worth celebrating. The speaker spends the poem talking about their experiences throughout time, acting as a symbol of all Black men and women who have had their power suppressed.
Hughes wrote ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ in order to celebrate the strength of Black heritage and perseverance. his speaker goes through the poem informing the reader that he or she has seen the world along the banks of famous, historically important rivers. Black history has flowed, as a river, from the beginnings of time despite many individuals and societies attempting to stop it.
Structure and Form
‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ by Langston Hughes is a thirteen-line poem that does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme. The lines also do not conform to a metrical pattern, meaning that the poem is written in free verse. Often, the uncontrolled feeling of the lines leads readers to relate the poem to the flow of a river. Some of the lines are quite short, such as the first line which has only four syllables while the following line has twenty-three. The line breaks, or lack thereof, also contribute to this feeling.
Hughes makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, imagery, and repetition. A reader will immediately notice that Hughes uses a great deal of the latter. This is especially evident at the beginning and end of ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers.’ There are also four notable instances in the middle section with the use of “I” attached to a verb at the beginnings of lines 5-8.
Hughes also makes use of enjambment. This is seen when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point if one was speaking aloud. This forces a reader’s eyes to move back and forth very quickly through the text. There is a lot of jumping around as if to mimic the chaos of water.
Imagery is one of the most important techniques a poet can engage with. Without it, readers would be left without a clear idea of what’s going on in the poem and likely leave unaffected by it. One of the best examples of imagery in the poem can be found in this phrase: ” I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.” Or, another good example are these lines from the beginning of the poem: “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.”
The Negro Speaks of Rivers Analysis
I’ve known rivers:
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
The poem begins with the speaker utilizing a great deal of repetition. The title of this piece immediately comes into play with the first-person narrator. One can assume that the speaker is black, as it is “I” who speaks of “rivers.” The first lines state that not only has he, and will he speak of rivers, he has “known” them. This is a strange turn of phrase. There is an element of personification used here which brings the reader closer to the world the speaker lives in. He became so close to these bodies of water he knew them, as one might know a fellow human being.
The starting line, “I’ve known rivers,” is used again at the beginning of the second line. It is not just any river he has known, but ones that are as “ancient as the world.” These bodies of water are vastly important to the history of the earth. They eventually came to be to humanity as well. The human element of the landscape is secondary to that which occurred before humans became the dominant species on the planet. This is emphasized by the statement that the water of the rivers is older than the,
Flow of human blood in human veins.
These features of the earth are being considered above the humans that eventually claimed them. The final lines of this section state that the speaker’s soul has “grown deep like the rivers.” It has taken on the ancient and multilayered aspects of rivers as well as their progression through a landscape. His soul is like the most ancient and longest of rivers. This is going to play into the next stanza in which he travels through a great many years.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
In the next set of lines, the speaker lists out a number of rivers he visited and came to know. A reader should take note of the four lines of this section that begin with “I.” It is the first four in which the speaker goes from the Euphrates to the “Mississippi” telling the story of his life.
The first place he takes the reader to is the “Euphrates” River which flows through the south of Turkey and into Iraq. It is one of the longest in the world. This body of water is deeply connected to mythology and ancient history. It is recorded that the city of Babylon was erected on its banks. It is often linked with the Tigris. Together they made up the Tigris-Euphrates river system. It was here that he experienced the young “dawns.” This is a reference to the beginning of time or at least the beginnings of human civilization.
Next, the speaker takes the reader to the “Congo.” Here he is referring to the second-longest river in Africa, the Congo River. It runs through three different countries, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola. This line is easy enough to interpret. He built his hut there on its banks and allowed it to lull him to sleep. This is quite an intimate way to get to know a river. Every moment he spends with each of these bodies of water is similar in that way. He has a personal connection with them.
In the next lines, he goes on to speak about the “Nile” River, the world’s longest. It flows from the south to the north in northeastern Africa. From his moment in time, he was looking “upon the Nile” while helping to build the pyramids. This clearly places him among the peasants or slaves who worked for the pharaohs of Egypt. Aside from the marvel of the pyramids, the Nile is the source of life for much of the region. He is aligning himself around the most important natural elements of his various times.
I heard the singing of the Missisippi when Abe Lincoln
bosom turn all golden in the sunset
Finally, he moves on to more modern times and the “Mississippi” River. He was listening to the sound of the Mississippi River while,
went down to New Orleans,
This is a reference to a particular trip taken by Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States. When he was a young man he guided a boat down the river. This gave him his first glimpse of what slavery was like. The marketplace in New Orleans was one of the largest in the world. In the concluding line of this section, he says that he has seen the muddy banks of the river turn “golden” due to the setting of the sun.
I’ve known rivers:
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
In the last three lines of this piece, the speaker returns to the repetition that marked the beginning of ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers.’ The lines are mostly the same with a slight change in the middle. He begins with the third repetition of the phrase, “I’ve known rivers.” They are used as a marker for the long and multifaceted life he has lived. He has been present at some of the world’s most important historical occasions, all due to his friendship and dedication to these bodies of water. They are described as being “dusky” and “ancient.” This gives them a darker, shadow-like undertone suited to the variety of experiences he had.
In conclusion, the speaker utilizes the line, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” again. It is clear this is the case. He has seen a great deal more than any living person could hope to.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ should also consider reading some of Langston Hughes’ other best-known poems. For example,
- ‘Dreams‘ – addresses the nature of dreams and the fact that men, women, and children should never let go of them. This stands true no matter how hard life gets.
- ‘Beale Street Love’ – is set in Memphis, Tennesse the home of Blues music. He explores the dynamics of race and love as they come together in a metaphorical landscape of relationships.
- ‘Mother to Son’ – is another famous Hughes poem. In it, the speaker, a mother, addresses her son telling him what he needs to know about growing up and dealing with the troubles life will surely throw at him.