‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers,’ by Langston Hughes (1921)

I have skirted only the edge of the American South. I haven’t myself been where the mugginess is green and the blue sky is soaked up into the waters below it. But I’ve at least been near enough to glance over the precipice. And this poem captures what feeling one might have, traversing alongside an old American river in the gentle wet heat. But beyond that, it rushes away to Egypt and Babylon, and attempts to convey something like the spiritual condition of Africans in America. I think I could go so far as to say that rarely have I read a poem that can juxtaposition the local and the universal so admirably and artlessly.

Langston Hughes wrote this poem at seventeen years old, and it is still probably the work he is most remembered for. That alone is a strange and nearly unparalleled feat. Many great poets have their talents manifest at an early age, and some of those are published early in their lives – but it is (and it seems, should be) almost unheard of to have a genuinely great poem be the first published. The fame of this particular verse is not accidental in the least; it is directly related to its quality. I think it would be useful to first go over some of the features of this poem that can be singled out as contributing to its overall effect. But, since the analysis of a poem’s various aspects will not adequately explain its fulness, I will make comments on the historical and poetic significance of certain passages along the way as well.

[A] I've known rivers:
[A] I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

[B] My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

[C1] I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
[C2] I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
[C3] I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
[C4] I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,
  and [C5] I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

[A] I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

[B] My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

The first feature that is clear is the use of both exact and varying repetition. “I’ve known rivers” is repeated three times. Twice, one after the other, at the head of the first two lines, which establishes the pattern of repetition for the rest of the poem. The repetition of “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” after these first two lines, and then at the end of the poem, formulates the poem into the following pattern:


There is a chiastic structure here (which I already provided an indication of above), with the basic pattern of AB occurring at the beginning and the end of poem, with C representing an entire stanza, which serves as the core of the poem around which the chiastic repetition takes place.

This central block is key, functioning as a body to the chiastic skeleton. It does utilize the repetition of the first person followed by past tense verbs, the same tense as the verbs in A (but not B, which contains the perfect tense, to which I shall return). But whereas the first person is replicated in each of the four lines, five times, the verbs are different in each case. There is obviously something Whitmanian about the pattern here, but it is combined with another feature. There is something of both the spiritual and the sermon lurking within the rhythms and the tone of each line. Like the rivers that come together in confluence, so many elements are brought into this work that nonetheless feels like a unit. The combination of various sources of influence does not have to resemble a quilt, though it still might and do well. Sometimes, like the evolution of life, an organism can contain similar parts and functions as past species, countless generations prior even, and nonetheless be complete in itself while at once being related to its forbearers. Between quilts and organisms, this poem’s an organism; and like some creature living in its environment, we have to wonder what its home is like.

Hughes narrows us down to his location, and the way in which he does so is the next feature to consider. Traveling through space and time, he begins with the Euphrates River, to the Congo, the Nile, and then finally to the Mississippi. The Euphrates evokes Babylon and the even older world surrounding it, the origin point of much that we call civilization. The Congo and the Nile take us back to Africa, the home of Hughes’ ancestors. There is something like a chronological order here, but it isn’t strict. And I cannot tell if Hughes thinks that black Africans built the pyramids or that they lived along the ancient Euphrates at the dawn of Southwest Asian civilization, which would technically be false. But I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. I think Hughes is painting a kind of universal history here, which includes, but is not limited, to the history of black Africans, either on the home continent or in their diaspora. That is, that there is something universal precisely within the special case of the African experience in the modern world. This backward look to the shrouded past, dripping with condensed age, flowing back into the river of time towards the present moment, when the poet writes, is a necessary gaze. And it is a piercing gaze, made essential by the requirements of the human need for identity. And identity requires context, context which must contain the present with all its concrete manifestations of life, and the past with all its abstract sets of causes. Poetry unifies them in an image, an intuition, bound together within feelings, all in which the identity finds itself like an image in a temple. Poetry doesn’t itself, in this case, embody that identity – it instead provides it a resting place.

Why all this nonsense about poetry and identity? Because it is relevant, I think, to why this poem was written. Psychologizing is a risky game, but I think that it is fair to say that the adolescent Hughes would have had the concern over his own identity at the forefront of his mind. And that by itself explains much of youthful poetry. But, in this case, that concern must have been intensified by the rather consistent encounters he had with not only the prejudiced attitudes against himself personally, but those that he encountered when reading newspaper reports of violence done against blacks throughout the South, precisely because they were hated as members of a outcast group, one that society could not allow itself to absorb or to accept communion with, if only to avoid admitting the futility of that original hatred in the first place. When you are an outcast, relegated to the sidelines, and you are made to feel that this exile must be so, and even more so that you deserve it – then you must, without reserve, assert your own dignity.

There are many forms of protest, and all may be necessary, but at the end of the day, culture itself, the acts that make up the beauty of daily life and the arts, music and poetry especially – culture itself is the ultimate rebellion. To enjoy life in the teeth of your enemies is the best victory. But it must be subtle, at least most of the time. It fails to work if it becomes an explicit revenge, or if it is done for that motivation. Then that simply makes every one of your own acts an acid that corrodes your own soul. No: it is precisely when you act, not out of revenge, but out of joy that you win; but not a victory of revenge, but of life itself. One can say with the psalmist, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies…”1, but only to God – never out loud to them.

So in this poetic exploration of the human past, and of his own experience in it as an African in a strange land that has become a home, rooted in the Earth itself, like the rivers are, Hughes achieves a twofold feat. First, he asserts his identity as a human and as an African, which I have already attempted to make some comments on. But he also, I think, he is also asserting his own identity as an American. Now this is less explicit, and the only clear way of noting it is by grabbing onto the seventh line, which brings in the Mississippi and Abe Lincoln, tying American history to the universal history, that history that goes even beyond human history, that is “… older than the flow of human blood in human veins.” If American history and identity itself, however much it possesses its own identity, must consider itself with reference to other past identities, why not also with reference to other communities? It may be that certain distinctions are not enough to divide utterly. We neutralize much of our natural tendency towards prejudice if we recognize freely the distinctions that actually do exist among human beings, especially in matters of culture (which is far more important than the ephemeral distinctions of physical characteristics), and find a way to breathe with ease nonetheless. In fact, something that humans hold much in common is our unwearying capacity to be incapable of holding much in common with others: in other words, there are few things more universal than prejudice. There comes a moment that makes one laugh out loud, or at least chuckle, when this recognition of our common inherited stupidity becomes clear, and that shared moment of clarity might be more unifying than anything else I can think of.

Hughes doesn’t quite explore this latter theme explicitly or even implicitly within this poem, but he does capture our attention with his interplay of the universal and the special, and yet he answers no questions. He only leaves us with reverence. And reverence is the beginning of gratitude, and gratitude is the root of kindness. And kindness might be the only way known out of old bitterness and crusted hatreds. Poems like these can foster an attitude of groundedness, which is revolutionary in its ultimate effect, and does not sacrifice the soul to the ambitions of political rectification, no matter how important the latter may be. But, as always, these are hard matters.

Featured image: ‘Sunset on the Mississippi,’ by Frederick Oakes Sylvester (1909), image in the public domain.

  1. Psalm 23:5, Authorized Version []

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