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.


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