Thursday, June 26, 2008

Summary of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

I'll say it again... I don't like poetry, and this poem is a good example of why.

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" vaguely conjures up images of the ancient Negroes living near the Euphrates, Congo, and Nile rivers and then tries to juxtapose them with the Mississippi at the time of Abraham Lincoln. I suppose Langston Hughes is trying to draw some line that connects together the people that surrounded these rivers, but it's unclear what that connection actually is, except for the fact that they lived by rivers. Then he somehow tries to tie The Negro's soul to these rivers. He states twice, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers"--once near the beginning and again at the finish--but never explains how the rivers are deep, nor how his soul is deep, nor even how his soul has *grown* deep. Does this imply that the soul of "The Negro" used to be shallow? Or that it only grows deep with the passing of centuries? (And what about the souls of Negroes who don't live by any rivers...?)

It also seems like he's trying to remind us that The Negro is an ancient race and has known these ancient rivers. But he doesn't say why he's telling us this, or why it's important. It's almost like the near-senile musings of an old man, reminiscing about old acquaintances. I'm simply left wondering what the purpose of this is...

It seems that he's also making a veiled statement about how the Mississippi river represents the condition of The Negro in America. He's "seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset," seeming to indicate that The Negro was muddied, and then, after Abe Lincoln emancipated the slaves, the filthiness has been replaced, now showing a beautiful and golden future. Or maybe he's saying something else.

I really can't tell for sure what Langston Hughes is trying to tell us. I sure hope his message here wasn't terribly important, because I can't understand it.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers
by Langston Hughes

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.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The "Real" Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge

(The prompt was to discuss "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" as an example of Literary Realism.)

Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a good example of Literary Realism. Not only was it written during that American literary period, but also has the earmarks of a Realist work.

"The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads," is how Bierce, with his biting wit, described Literary Realism in The Devil's Dictionary. Objectivity of the author is one of the characteristics of Realism. A Realist piece should consist of a detailed recounting of the people, places, things, and events, with no or limited commentary from the author. The entire Part I--the first seven paragraphs--of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is just that. Events are not explained beyond the unemotional description of their details. In fact, the opening sentences describe a terribly emotional sight:

"A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck."

This man is facing death by hanging! Death is among the most emotional and gripping situations that a reader can possibly be presented with, yet, in this Realist technique, it's described with an absolute emotional detachment--as if "seen by toads". The principal is that there is enough drama in these events by themselves that moralizing and judging commentary is not needed. These are stripped away to let the reader see drama in "real life" struggles. Additional artificial suspense, and other literary devices are also absent, again, to lay bare the human ordeal in it's "real" state.

Another signature, unique to Realism is that it "Renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail.... even at the expense of a well-made plot." (Campbell) The real story--the actual events that took place, not the fantasy in Peyton Farquhar's mind--is indeed rendered at the expense of a well-made plot. The author could have easily written the plot of Farquhar's dying hallucination as if it were the true story--the entire work is, after all, fiction. But, true to Realist form, the Romantic plot that would have made Peyton into a Hero of the South was sacrificed, and the pessimistic, more plausible--more "real"-- plot given in it's place.

But even in Farquhar's mental, heroic, Romantic journey, the Realist technique is at work. All the tiny details of life are noted:
"He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf--saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies' wings, the strokes of the water-spiders' legs, like oars which had lifted their boat--all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water."

This is a supreme example of close and comprehensive detail, and of faithfully representing "reality".

Bierce also seems to use this work as a demonstration of the distinction between Romanticism and Realism. The vivid visions that ran through the mind of Peyton Farquhar as he hanged in his noose are much like a fantastical plot of a traditional Romantic story. And even from inside his own visions, Peyton seems to be mimicking the traditional Romantic. He comments to himself, "What splendid effort!--what magnificent, what superhuman strength!," as he imagines his hands freeing their bonds, and then watching as "the cord fell away." These heroic, superhuman, feats are marks of a Romantic protagonist--the antithesis of a Realist character. But, outside of his mind, the depressing reality was that he "was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge." This seems to indicate the entire attitude of Realism against Romanticism: that Romantic notions are useless delusions, whereas Realism is the raw drama of life.


Campbell, Donna M. "Realism in American Literature, 1860-1890." Literary Movements. Last Modified 02/06/2007. Accessed 6/17/2008. .

Bierce, Ambrose The Devil's Dictionary.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Summary of "Because I Could Not Stop for Death"

This is the kind of poem that makes me hate poetry.

After reading this poem several times, I still had absolutely no idea what Dickinson was trying to communicate. All I gathered was that she was riding in a carriage, slowly, past a schoolyard, then through fields of grain, and eventually to a house that was buried up to it's roof. It was here in this house that she spent centuries, though it felt like less than a day.

So, after reading some interpretations of this poem, and a little bit about Emily Dickinson, I could grasp more of its meaning, but still not completely. Here's as much as I got:

I assume that Dickinson was beginning to be aware of her mortality at the time she wrote this. I imagine she's thinking that, when she gets old, she will still be working away, keeping busy, and not simply waiting to die, but Death will "kindly" come when it's time.

As Death arrives and takes her away, the carriage held "Ourselves"--she and Death--"And Immortality". Knowing that she attended a Seminary and was a devout Christian, I'm sure that this is a reflection of her faith. She recognizes that with Death, comes Immortality, so she has no reason to fear Death--but also no reason to seek it.

So, when Death arrives, she puts away her "labors" and "leisures"--the things of life--and gracefully goes without a struggle, on this new journey.

Now, I really don't know what she means when she describes Death taking her through the stages of life represented by the shool, the fields, and the setting sun. Is she seeing her own life pass before her eyes? Or is it a representation of her new immortal journey, with a new childhood, mid-life, and sunset?

And then why, if she's dead, is she getting cold? Maybe it's just a device for her to explain that she's wearing something like a wedding gown, indicating again that she's looking at death/immortality as a new life, rather than an end. (but then, if that's what she means, why doesn't she just say that?)

Then, finally she arrives at a house--a tomb? a sepulchre? (or is it a hobbit's hole?)--her final resting place. But this part I don't understand: Why is she then stuck in her grave for eternity if she's immortal? Why isn't her immortal soul off in a heaveny mansion, leaving her dead and useless body in the ground? Perhaps the specific doctrines of her faith would explain this? Maybe she is simply using the tomb::house metaphor to symbolize that she will be comfortable in her new existence--so comfortable that she didn't even notice when centuries have passed.

Now, while I'm sure that Emily Dickinson was trying to communicate something about accepting Death as an inevitable part of life, this communication is vague and limited by cramming these thoughts into a few lines of obscured language. If I have to try this hard to understand her message, perhaps the author has done a poor job of using language.


Because I Could Not Stop for Death
by Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –