The Negro Speaks of Rivers
by Langston Hughes
Analysis: Form and Meter
True, there may be no rhyming going on in this poem, but don’t let that fool you. Hughes is pulling out all of the stops to create a poem that is as full of sound and movement as a raging river. The lines "I’ve known rivers" and "my soul has grown deep like the rivers" are each repeated (once at the beginning and once at the end of the poem), and in this way, the poem has a cyclical feel to it. It’s as though these lines are magical words that help us enter the poem and that help us leave the poem. Our speaker also gets a bit repetitive in lines 5-8, for each sentence begins with the pronoun "I" and a verb: "I bathed," "I built," "I looked," "I heard." Are there any similarities between these verbs?
If we look closely, we can see how the poem is composed of three parts or three landscapes. There’s the "I’ve known rivers" section, the "my soul has grown deep as rivers" section," and the world’s greatest rivers section. The first two sections are echoed at the end of the poem. The third section sits solidly in the middle of the poem and is not repeated. How does this structure influence how you read or understand the poem?
Enjambment also features largely throughout, and lines get cut off abruptly, forcing our eye to madly search for the next thought at the beginning of the next line. Our eyes are constantly moving in zigzagging fashion as we read this poem, and that zigzag motion looks to us to be very similar to the way a river winds and bends its way through the earth.
Take a look at lines 8 through 10, the Mississippi River lines. Notice how lines 9 and 10 are indented. Why do you think this is? Why do you suppose line 3 is also indented? What, if anything, does this poem look like to you on the page?
Lastly, we cannot help but to notice the similarity between Langston Hughes’ poetic style and that of Walt Whitman. We know that Whitman was one of Hughes’ favorite poets of all time, and we hear this influence in the everyday, colloquial manner in which our speaker speaks, and we hear this influence in the prominence of the first person, as in the frequency of the word "I." Check out Shmoop’s study guide on "A Noiseless Patient Spider" by Walt Whitman. What other similarities and differences do you find between Hughes’s and Whitman’s poetry?