The Negro Speaks of Rivers
by Langston Hughes
Our speaker is a wise, old man with a lot of stories to tell. We imagine him surrounded by a flock of grandchildren at one moment, eyes twinkling, telling rich stories about ancestors and about the family’s history. He also seems to us to be like an ancient and respected professor, standing at a podium before a sea of eager students. He tells them of all of the places he has visited and all of the world events he has witnessed. Indeed, our speaker is a world traveler, a man with a time machine. He has seen the birth of civilization, he has helped to build the pyramids, and he has seen the abolishment of slavery.
There’s a music to the way our speaker speaks, as though he’s singing a song, saying a prayer, or leading a service. For some reason, we can’t help but think of that ancient Greek poet, Homer, who had epic stories like The Odyssey memorized and who would recite them for his audiences (in the days before iTunes, CDs, and even books).
Even though our speaker tells us about what he has seen and done using strong and specific "I" statements ["I bathed" (5), "I built" (6), "I looked" (7), "I heard" (8)] we wonder if there might not be many people behind the "I" in this poem. Could it be that there are multiple speakers? Or perhaps there are many voices behind each line of the poem?