Analysis of ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ by Langston Hughes

The Negro Speaks of Rivers: Langston Hughes was born on February 1st 1902 and shot to fame when he was in his early twenties. He was one the black poets who had the greatest reputation. He was very different from his predecessors and his successors. During the twenties, American poets were turning inwards and writing mysterious and obscure poems which distanced themselves from the readers. Hughes was always connected with the people as he addressed his poems to his people and using language and themes with which the people could relate. He always had serious things to say but put it across humorously at times. Hughes was always inspiring other African American poets to write about their people. He must be a poet whose poems have been the most read and he kept writing until his death which was on May 22nd 1967.

Hughes begins by saying he has known rivers and begins the second line again with ‘I have known rivers…..’ The word ‘known’ suggests that he has been like a friend of the rivers. Then he springs a surprise saying he knows all the ancient rivers from a very long time. The rivers came when the earth was made, so it is older than human beings and the blood that runs in the veins of human beings. His soul has grown deep like the rivers.  He goes on to list the rivers known to him, Euphrates, Congo, Nile and Mississippi. He bathed in Euphrates when the river and the civilization around it was young. He had built his hut near the Congo and the sound of the Congo waters had ‘lulled’ him to sleep.

The poet had watched the Nile and how the Pyramids were built above it. He had heard the singing of the Mississippi and he says it was the time when Abe Lincoln went to New Orleans. Abraham Lincoln had travelled in a boat on the Mississippi when he was 21 to see the horrors of slavery; the poet was with him he says. He also saw the muddy waters of Mississippi turn golden in the sunset. Hughes emphasizes that he had known the rivers, the ancient, dusky rivers and they were as deep as his soul. The poem creates an imagery as if it is written by an old soul who links the past to its present. He uses the image of the rivers to talk about African history. Civilizations were built and razed to the ground wiping off their identity. His soul has seen so many changes in his civilization; he compares his soul to the deep rivers.

‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ is a free verse with thirteen lines. There are no rhyming words but with the repetition of lines ‘I’ve known rivers’ and ‘My soul has grown deep like the rivers’, Hughes has brought in the cyclical effect and gives a feel of true poem. The imagery created through the river is powerful and is seen in the lines like

‘….I’ve seen its muddy

bosom turn all golden in the sunset’ and  ‘Ancient, dusky rivers.’

Simile is used in in the line ‘My soul has grown deep like the rivers’. Enjambment where a thought is carried to the next line is seen in the lines 2 and 3 and again in 8, 9 and 10. Rivers are the stars in this poem and his soul is like those rivers. Rivers are used as metaphors to represent the history of the African Americans.

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