Negro Speaks of Rivers" is a lyric
poem in free verse. A lyric poem presents the
deep feelings and emotions of the poet rather than telling a story or presenting
a witty observation. Free verse is a type of poetry that ignores
standard rules of meter in favor of the rhythms of
ordinary conversation. In effect, free verse liberates poetry from conformity
to rigid metrical rules that dictate stress patterns and the number of
syllables per line. One line may contain only four syllables (as in line
1 of "The Negro Speaks") and another more than twenty (as in line 2).
of Composition and Publication
Hughes wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in 1920 and published it in January
1921 in Crisis magazine, a publication of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People.
dedicated the poem to W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), editor of Crisis
(see above) and a promoter of black pride and black
deepen their beds by cutting channels through earth and rock. Black men
and women deepen their knowledge, wisdom and character by persevering through
trials and tribulations. Their experiences build a collective consciousness
that flows, like a river, from one generation to the next. In Hughes's
poem, a black man of the early twentieth centuryacting
as speaker for the Negroid racetells the
reader that he has inherited this collective consciousness from his forebears
in Asia, Africa, and North America. In his mind's eye, he sees not only
the suffering endured by blacks over the centuries but also their triumph
uses third-person point of view in the title and first-person point of
view in the poem. In the title, Hughes announces the speaker and topic
of the poem. Then he assumes the persona of the speaker (representing the
Negroid race) in presenting the words of the poem.
a novel, short story, or poem, any writer can become part of the work by
assuming a persona that may or may not resemble his or her own in real
life. In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Hughes assumes the persona of the
Negroid race, as if the speaker is a chorus of all blacks since the beginning
of human life on earth.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
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
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
Wisdom and Experience
Negroid race is a deep fund of wisdom and experience accumulated since
the dawn of human existence.
men and women have a proud cultural history and record of accomplishment
spite of suffering inflicted on them, black men and women have endured
through the ages, never giving up.
of figures of speech in the poem are as follows:
of a consonant sound
Line 5: I bathed
in the Euphrates when dawns were
Line 6: lulled
Assonance In stressed
syllables, repetition of a vowel sound followed by a different consonant
Line 13: I bathed
in the Euphrates when dawns were young
Anaphora Repetition of a word, phrase, or
clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other
bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
heard the singing of the Mississippi. . . .
of unlike things without using like, as, or than
Line 4: My soul
has grown deep like the rivers (comparison of spiritual depth to physical
of unlike things using like, as, or than
Line 4: My soul
has grown deep like the rivers (Comparison of the change in the depth of
his soul to the change in the depth of rivers)
Euphrates is one of two great rivers that form in Turkey and flow down
through Iraq to Al Qurnah in Southern Iraq. The other river is the Tigris.
At Al Qurnah, the rivers join to form the Shatt al-Arab, which empties
into the Persian Gulf. Recorded history began in a country between the
two rivers, Mesopotamia.
Congo River forms in central Africa in the present-day country of the Democratic
Republic of the Congo (DRC). From its headwaters, the river flows north
in the DRC, then west, then southwest to the Atlantic Ocean. Many Africans
were abducted from the Congo region and sold into slavery. King Leopold
II of Belgium commissioned the famous Anglo-American explorer Henry Morton
Stanley to establish trading posts along the river. Supposedly, these trading
posts were set up to civilize and develop the Congo region while ending
the slave trade. However, the Belgians exploited the native population
while capitalizing on the Congo as a rich source of ivory.
Nile forms south of the equator and flows northward through Uganda, Sudan,
and Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. Frequent flooding
of the river made the soil on both sides of the river ideal for farming
and helped Egypt become a dominant North African power in ancient times.
Persons of the Negroid race were among those who constructed the pyramids
not far from the Nile at Giza, Saqqarah, Dahshur and other sites.
Mississippi River flows more than 2,000 miles from northern Minnesota to
the Gulf of Mexico. Black slaves labored along its shores, and slave auctions
took place at towns and settlements within site of the Mississippi. After
traveling down the Mississippi in 1831, Abraham Lincoln witnessed a slave
auction in New Orleans and vowed to do all in his power to end slavery.
In 1863, while he was the U.S. president, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation,
which freed the slaves.
Questions and Writing Topics
1. Write an essay that informs
the reader of major accomplishments of black men and women from ancient
times to 1800.
2. Write an essay that describes
the kind of slave auction that Abraham Lincoln witnessed.
3. Write a short lyric poem
that uses anaphora to help convey the theme.
In the second stanza, the speaker says, "I've seen its (the Mississippi
River's) muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset." Explain the meaning
of these words. Keep in mind that the water remains muddy even though the
surface appears golden golden.