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The Negro Speaks of Rivers

The Negro Speaks of Rivers


by Langston Hughes

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Line 1

I've known rivers:

  • Our speaker has known rivers. He says so in a way an old man telling stories to his grandchild might comment on people that he’s known in his lifetime: "I’ve known some people."
  • Our speaker does not say, "I know rivers," but he says instead, "I’ve known rivers," making us feel as though much time has passed since our speaker first encountered these rivers.
  • The fact that he has "known" these rivers suggests that he didn’t just sit on a rock by the river and watch it flow by or skip rocks upon it, he has spent some quality time with rivers. He and rivers are good friends.

Line 2

I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the

  • Now our speaker begins to describe the rivers that he has known. They are OLD. They are as old as the planet Earth.

Line 3

flow of human blood in human veins.

  • Because these rivers are as old as the planet Earth (they share the same birthday), they are naturally older than humans, older than the blood that gives life to humans.

Line 4

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

  • Our speaker tells us that his soul has become as deep as these ancient rivers.
  • When he says that, we think of the physical depth of these rivers, but we also think of the depth of their history and their existence. These rivers have perhaps been around for as long as the earth has been in existence (over 4.5 billion years).
  • Our speaker’s soul is old and has lived through much.
  • Let’s talk about rivers, shall we? What are they, and what do they do?
  • Rivers have a source, or a place where they begin. The Euphrates River, for example, finds its source in the Armenian mountains. The Mississippi River’s source is Lake Itasca in Minnesota.
  • Rivers flow in one direction, just like Time itself. Whoa.
  • Have you ever visited or have you seen pictures of the Grand Canyon – you know, that canyon in Arizona that is 277 miles long and approximately 1 mile deep? Well, the Colorado River, which sits at the canyon’s bottom, is responsible for carving such a masterpiece out of the land. Rivers are powerful things. They can wear away the land around them over time. They can leave a scar on the earth itself.
  • Since the beginning of civilization, humans have sought to build villages, towns, and cities on the banks of rivers. Not only are rivers pretty to look at, but they can provide transportation (via boat or jet ski), they can provide fertilization (water those crops!), they make brilliant bathtubs (Irish Spring, anyone?), and they provide dinner (yum, trout soufflé).
  • Rivers are pretty much the coolest things around, and all we know is, if our speaker’s soul has grown as deep as rivers, he must be one cool and smart guy.

Line 5

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

  • Our speaker went swimming and bathed in the Euphrates River when the sun was just beginning to rise over and over again over the first human civilizations in Mesopotamia.
  • The Euphrates River is a river that flows south from modern-day Turkey through Iraq, and it is the longest river in Western Asia.
  • The land between it and its sister river, the Tigris, is thought to be the site of the cradle of civilization.
  • The ancient city of Babylon (famous for its Hanging Gardens), grew on the banks of the mighty Euphrates.

Line 6

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

  • Our speaker was once sung to sleep every night by the sound of the great Congo River, a river that now runs through three countries in Africa: the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola. It is the second longest river in Africa.

Line 7

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

  • Our speaker was once one of the peasants that helped to build the pyramids in Egypt (the seventh wonder of the world).
  • For a long time, it was widely believed that Egyptian rulers forced 100,000 men into slavery in order to build the pyramids. Recently, however, scholars have begun to question this, believing that the workers were peasants who were honored to help with such a cool project.
  • Granite was quarried 500 miles south of the pyramids ands was transported via the Nile to the building site of the pyramids.
  • The Nile is considered the longest river in the world and the land around it is extremely fertile and delicious.
  • Egyptian civilization flourished for thousands of years as a result of this really cool river.

Line 8

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln

  • Our speaker has heard the Mississippi River sing. The Mississippi River begins in Minnesota and spills into the Gulf of Mexico, running through ten states along the way.

Line 9

went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy

  • The Mississippi River was singing on account of Abraham Lincoln’s visit to New Orleans. When he was nineteen and 21 years old, Abe took a trip down the Mississippi River on a flatboat (a cargo boat) and witnessed first-hand the horrors of slavery.

Line 10

bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

  • The Mississippi is known as a muddy river, a catfish’s paradise, on account of the soil and dirt that gets stirred up on the river’s bottom. Our speaker has seen this muddy river transformed into a golden river thanks to the setting sun.

Line 11

I've known rivers:

  • Our speaker tells us for a third time that he has known rivers, and for the third time, we get the sense that our speaker is very good friends with these rivers.

Line 12

Ancient, dusky rivers.

  • Again, our speaker describes the rivers he’s known as being "ancient," but this time he also describes them as "dusky." The word "dusky" makes us think of evening, shadows, darkness, and dust.

Line 13

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

  • Again, our speaker tells us that his soul has become as deep as the rivers he’s known and befriended, and we believe him.

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