By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ was the first mature poem that Langston Hughes (1901-67) had published, in 1921. The poem bears the influence of Walt Whitman, but is also recognisably in Hughes’ own emerging, distinctive voice.
You can read ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ here (the poem takes around one minute to read) before reading on to our summary and analysis of Langston Hughes’ poem.
‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’: summary
The poem is composed of five stanzas, of varying lengths. The speaker of the poem, as its title makes clear, as a ‘Negro’: a Black person of African descent. Hughes himself was one of the most noted African-American writers of his age, but here he adopts the voice of all Black people throughout history, going back thousands of years.
In the first stanza, the speaker tells us that he has known all kinds of rivers, including very old and ancient ones which even predate the earliest humans: before the first blood flowed through human veins, those rivers were flowing, and the speaker has known them all.
The second stanza is a single standalone line, which sees the speaker likening his own soul to those ancient rivers: like them, his soul has ‘grown deep’.
The third, or middle, stanza of the poem is also the longest. The speaker tells us that he bathed in the Euphrates, a major river in the Middle East. The ancient empire of Mesopotamia was actually founded between the Tigris and Euphrates, the two largest rivers in that part of the world; ‘Mesopotamia’ means ‘between the rivers’.
The world was young when the speaker bathed in the waters of the Euphrates. He built a hut for himself near another river, the African Congo, and the river soothed him to sleep. Elsewhere in Africa, he looked at the Nile and he built the Pyramids to tower above that river.
And, more recently, the speaker heard the ‘singing’ of the vast North American river, the Mississippi, during the nineteenth century when the young Abraham Lincoln, then still only a teenager, guided a flatboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans in 1828, his first trip to the American South. Lincoln would later become US President, and, during the American Civil War, would become known as ‘the Great Emancipator’ for securing a victory for the Union in the war, leading to the abolition of slavery and the liberating of African slaves in the US.
The fourth and fifth stanzas are shorter. The fourth stanza is in many ways a shortened version of the poem’s opening stanza: the speaker tells us again that he has known rivers which are ancient and ‘dusky’ (i.e., dark). The fifth and final stanza is a word-for-word repetition, or reprise, of the second stanza, and brings the poem to a conclusion: the speaker’s soul, he tells us, has ‘grown deep like the rivers.’
‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’: analysis
‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ was published in Crisis, a journal of African-American writing, in June 1921. Hughes had written the poem while actually travelling on a river: he was crossing the Mississippi at the time, and it makes sense to view his poem as being about Mississippi above all.
His speaker is the spiritual embodiment of all African people, starting with the cradle of all humanity, ancient Mesopotamia, where, according to the Old Testament, the Garden of Eden was located.
We are also taken to the Nile, recalling those who built the Pyramids, before moving geographically and historically to those who, in America’s recent history, suffered under the injustices of modern slavery. (It’s perhaps also worth remembering that there’s a common perception that the Pyramids had themselves been built on slave labour. Throughout history, the African man has faced these injustices and hardships, Hughes’ poem suggests through its historical telescoping.)
But if the poem hints at the dark recent history of the United States, it is also a hopeful and celebratory poem. Lincoln, after all, would lead the way to the liberation of African slaves, just as he had guided his boat down the Mississippi as a young man of nineteen (did that journey, and his encounters with Black people which Lincoln must have had during his time in Louisiana, imbue him with a greater sympathy for the plight of Black slaves, one wonders?).
The fact that the ‘muddy’ waters of the river turn ‘gold’ suggests that the Black speaker, and all Black people, are finally coming into the inheritance they have been owed for so long.
And ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ bears the influence of religious verses: there is something psalm-like about its rhythms, about the repetition (that repeated line, almost a refrain, about the speaker’s soul growing deep like the various rivers of the world) and the anaphora Hughes uses. Anaphora is a rhetorical device that consists of repeating a sequence of words at the beginnings of successive clauses, as Hughes’ speaker does when he says, ‘I’ve known rivers’ at the beginnings of the poem’s first two lines, and then begins each line of the third stanza with the word ‘I’ (‘I bathed …’, ‘I built …’, ‘I looked …’, ‘I heard …’).
So, there is almost something of the preacher in Hughes’ speaker, and it’s worth noting that he is speaking, rather than writing (contrast him with the young speaker of Hughes’ ‘Theme for English B’, who is writing his college homework assignment). So there is a sense that the speaker is declaiming – proclaiming even – and speaking with an authority and a confidence that is almost religious in its flavour.
Rivers have long had spiritual meaning to peoples and cultures around the world. Just twenty years after Hughes published his poem, T. S. Eliot, in ‘The Dry Salvages’ (1941), would describe the river as a ‘strong brown god’; curiously enough, he, too, is thinking specifically of the Mississippi. So the fact that the speaker’s soul has grown deeper like the rivers that have watered and nourished him need not surprise us. It has become part of his identity, formed who he – and his ancestors – have become, and played a key role in his history.
And as well as betraying a biblical inspiration, the rhythms of Hughes’ short poem also recall the long, rolling lines of Walt Whitman: another great emancipator in nineteenth-century history, although this time of verse rather than slaves. Whitman (1819-92) was an important early guide for Hughes’ own poetry, and his own free verse compositions are often celebratory, recalling the sprawling lines of the Old Testament psalms.
‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ would continue to be an important poem in Langston Hughes’ oeuvre, and one of his most defining works, even though it is, in many respects, atypical of his work in terms of its rhythms, style, and structure. But it was this poem, rather than his later jazz- and blues-influenced lyrics, which was read at Hughes’ funeral in 1967.
‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’: form
As we remarked above, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ is influenced by the free verse of Walt Whitman, and Hughes’ poem is an example of free verse, too: it is unrhymed and has no regular metre or rhythm (contrast it with, say, Claude McKay’s near-contemporary poem, ‘If We Must Die’, and you can immediately hear the difference between the two poets).
‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ also has lines of varying lengths and its stanzas range from just one line to four lines. This style is entirely appropriate for a poem that surprises us with its unexpected connections between very different places and historical periods, and conveys the excitement of the speaker concerning the spiritual link between these rivers and his own soul.