Taking Apart: The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I thought it was only right to ride out my previous idea until the end of the month, so I’ve decided to post about another poem by a black poet. This past Saturday I was in Rochester, which I hadn’t previously realized is bisected by the alarmingly fast Genesee River. I hate to be the guy who is reminded of poems by stuff he sees in real life, but I’d been reading Langston Hughes that morning, and it wasn’t a very big stretch to connect the river I was looking at to “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, which Hughes wrote on a train journey when he was eighteen. The poem is as follows:

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
     flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

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.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Many of the literary techniques that Hughes uses here work towards evoking the sound and visual appearance of a river. Sibilant sounds, which bring to mind the constant flowing sound of water, can be found in every line of this poem, although they are not so rife as to be overtly noticeable or overpower the other sounds of the poem. Real rivers, after all, don’t flow at the same speed at every place in their course, and Hughes’ use of varied cadence evokes this as well. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is a poem rich in assonance, and when consonants do appear, they tend towards being soft – there are many uses of d‘s and l‘s, which lend themselves to the sound of a gentler sort of river. The poem’s physical appearance itself also evokes a river – the enjambment of “flow of human blood in human veins” and “went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy / bosom turn all golden in the sunset” are strongly reminiscent of the twists of a river, and those lines themselves directly address flow: that of blood in veins, and the course of the Mississippi.

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