The Negro Speaks of Rivers

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Summary of The Negro Speaks of Rivers

  • Popularity of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”: The poem was written by Langston Hughes, a great American poet, social activist, and playwright. ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ is one of the famous free verse poems about African people and their life before and after leaving their land. It was first published in 1921 in the journal The Crisis. The poem presents the voice and memory of the Africans who were forced into slavery, including the time when Abraham Lincoln fought to abolish it. The speaker speaks from the depth of his heart and provides glimpses of his heritage, memories attached with ancient rivers in Africa.
  • “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, As a Representative of History: This poem is written from the perspective of an old soul who tries to establish a link between the past and the present. He uses rivers as symbols to reflect the African experience in history. Additionally, he says that his soul is as deep as a river, implying he has seen and experienced tremendous changes in his civilization. Also, he speaks about his past activities near the Euphrates, the Congo, and the Nile, which provide a clue to his philosophical approach, love of nature and the origin of his race.
  • Major Themes in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”: Pride, heritage, and nature are the major themes of this poem. The poet talks about the origin and historical existence of the African race. By using the reference of rivers, he says that the African race is deeply attached to the knowledge that is as old as the ancient rivers. Also, the mood of the poem suggests that the speaker takes pride in his color, ancient culture, and race.

Analysis of Literary Devices in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

The use of literary devices is intended to allow words to have different meanings. Though the poem is a simple free verse, Langston Hughes has used literary devices to describe the rivers that blend eastern and western cultures. Some of the literary devices are explained below.

  1. Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line such as the sound of /o/ in “My soul has grown deep like the rivers”.
  2. Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example, “I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep”; “Ancient, dusky rivers” and “seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset”.
  3. Simile: It is a figure of speech used to compare an object or person with something else to make meanings clear to the readers. There are two similes used in this poem. The first example, “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins”. Here the poet compares the rivers with the ancient world. The second example is in the third line, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” here the depth of his soul is compared with the depth of the rivers.
  4. Enjambment: It is defined as a thought or clause that does not come to an end at a line break instead moves over the next line. For example,

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.”

  1. Symbolism: Symbolism is a use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal meanings. For example, “the flow of human blood in human veins” and all the rivers mentioned in the poem. Here ‘river’ represents the passage of time and the blood is the symbol of life.
  2. Anaphora: It refers to the repetition of a word or expression in the first part of some verses. For example, “I’ve known rivers” in the opening lines of the poem to express his knowledge of his ancient culture before the slavery period.
  3. Personification: Personification means to give human attributes to inanimate objects. For example, the Mississippi River is personified, “I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans” as if the river is human that can sing.

Analysis of Poetic Devices in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  1. Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. This poem doesn’t follow a particular stanza form. It comprises of one couplet, a single verse, and then a quatrain followed by another couplet and a single verse.
  2. Free Verse: Free verse is a type of poetry that does not contain patterns of rhyme or meter. This is a free verse poem with no strict rhyme or meter.
  3. Repetition: There is a repetition of the phrase “I’ve known rivers,” which has created a musical quality in the poem.
  4. Refrain: The lines repeated at some distance in the poems are called refrain. The phrase “I’ve known rivers” is repeated and has become a refrain.

Quotes to be Used

The lines stated below can be used by a nature lover who likes to explore or learn more. These could also be used to narrate any personal experience of visiting ancient cities.

“I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.”