The Negro Speaks of Rivers
by Langston Hughes
You guessed it. Rivers are the superstars of this poem, and our speaker likens his soul to the rivers he has known in his lifetime. However, we know our speaker could not have lived through over four thousand years of history. In this way, our speaker comes to represent a community of individuals, and the rivers become a metaphor for the history, spirit, and wisdom of Africans and African-Americans. Through this metaphor, our speaker documents a history and a heritage.
- Line 1: The "rivers" mentioned are part of an extended metaphor that likens the soul of the black community to the ancient, wise, and enduring great rivers of the earth.
- Line 1 and Line 11: In these lines we hear the refrain of the line, "I’ve known rivers," as it is repeated. In this way, the poem becomes cyclical and musical.
- Line 2: The enjambment at the end of this line causes our eye to immediately and hungrily devour the beginning of the following line.
- Line 2: Here, the speaker uses a simile to compare the age of the rivers to the age of the Earth: "ancient as the world."
- Line 3: In this line, the rivers become a metaphor for the rivers of blood that flow through human veins.
- Line 4: Our speaker uses a simile to compare the depth of his soul to that of the rivers.
- Line 4 and Line 13: Again we hear the refrain in the line, "my soul has grown deep like the rivers," as it is repeated.
- Line 5: We find an allusion here to the cradle of civilization as bordered by the Euphrates River.
- Line 6: We come across another allusion here to the Congo River basin in central western Africa.
- Line 6: The Congo River is personified as it has lulled our speaker to sleep like a mother singing a lullaby.
- Line 7: We find yet another allusion to the Nile River and to the moment in history in which the pyramids were built.
- Line 7: The speaker uses hyperbole when he says that he "raised the pyramids." We know he couldn’t have built the one of the seven wonders of the world by himself.
- Line 8: Again, we are presented with an allusion to the Mississippi River and to the moment in history when Abe Lincoln sailed down this river, witnessing the horrors of slavery.
- Line 8: The Mississippi River is personified as the speaker describes its singing.
- Line 8, Line 9, Line 10: The enjambment at the end of each of these lines again creates the sense of the rivers flow, and visually reflects the winding path of a great river.
- Line 9 and 10: Here our speaker creates an image of the sun setting on the great Mississippi River, turning it to gold.
- Line 10: The Mississippi River is again personified as it is described as having a "bosom," granting it feminine, maternal qualities.