‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ is the heritage of Negro spirituals which is recalled by the poem’s majestic imagery and sonorous repetitions. Written when Hughes was only seventeen as he travelled by train across the Mississippi, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ is a beautiful statement of strength in the history of black people, which Hughes imagines stretching as far back as ancient Egypt and further into Africa and the cradle of civilization. The poem returns at the end to America in a moment of optimistic alchemy when he sees the “muddy bosom” of the Mississippi “turn all golden in the sunset”.
In the poem, the speaker speaks about his knowledge of rivers which have been the source of life and light for people from ancient times. The great civilizations of the world have developed along the back of the rivers. Rivers in the poem are portrayed as having the eternal flow of water which is channelized into the canal for irrigation to sustain a happy and healthy existence of people. Similarly, blood flows in our body through veins, which keeps us alive and vibrant for the accomplishment of our assignments. The textual details of the poem invoke strong imagery related to veins, rivers, and the roots of trees and give the reader a sense of the timelessness of these objects.
In the short first stanza, the speaker in the poem by Langston Hughes states that he has “known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.” From this early point in the poem, images of the canals of veins that run throughout the human body as well as similar images of rivers that wind around and are shaped like veins form our understanding that this poem is about more than blood or water, it is about roots and circuits. Like veins or rivers, roots run deep and twist irregularly through the medium in which they are planted. The ancient rivers the speaker talks of are like the blood in veins or the roots under trees because they provide sustenance and can give and support life.
It is important to point out that after the first stanza there is a sentence that stands by itself for emphasis that simply states in one of the more important lines in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” It means the rivers are similar to the soul. Here the poet tends to say that his campaign for the quest of identity will continue endlessly. As rivers in due course of time become deep and have more power of sustainability and strength, similarity with advancing time he will muster strength, courage and empowerment to prove his status as equal with his white counterparts who consider him rootless in America.
The third section of The Negro Speaks of Rivers changes the tone of the poem since it reverts to the first-person perspective. Although the reader knows it is impossible for one person to have lived in so many places and time periods at once. It is understood that the “I” being used is meant to represent hundreds of thousands of voices from the past to the present. The speaker has given a long list of rivers like Euphrates, Congo, Nile, Mississippi and New Orleans where he has lived bathed, sang and raised pyramids.
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.
He further sets to elaborate his deep knowledge about rivers when in remote past they emerged as dusky and shadowy and no fixed banks and clear water, as they are having today. But gradually they established themselves as the famous rivers with death and crystal clear water and now they acquire dignified status as rivers across the world. This shows the eternal growth of the rivers. Similarly, the poet will be gaining ground and will succeed as a champion who has been striving hard to rehabilitate the blacks as respected citizens of America. It is the sense of urgency and depth of commitment on the part of the speaker which renders it a unique poem.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.