Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

The Negro Speaks of Rivers (from poets.org)
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.

Comment:

Of rivers the Bible speaks. One watered Eden: in flowing out, it divided into four, encompassing the lands of the earth (Genesis 2:10-14). Homer tells of Proteus, the god by the Nile, who could shift his shape and become anything. Menelaus had to hold him fast to learn the truth about his former comrades (Odyssey IV.412).

Onto the poem. Indignant, proud, he speaks: “I’ve known rivers.” Someone has challenged his authority, questioned his being; it’s as if a whole tradition conspires to rob him of his dignity. The only way to counter tradition is an appeal to the natural, the way things actually are. “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.”

How things actually are is continuous, persisting. The truth is within one; metaphorical identification is literal identification, a carrying across time:

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.

“My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” the fundamental response to one who would question your experience, what you have seen. Only a little knowledge of one’s ancestors is needed to grasp your standing with them. Like them, he has “bathed,” “built,” “looked,” “heard,” “seen.” If remote antiquity has an epic, mythical power – whether we are speaking of the origin of civilization (“Euphrates”), golden ages of peace (“Congo… lulled me to sleep”), grand empires (“pyramids”) – then he certainly shares in that, hearing “the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans.” (Once, it was a point of national pride that America was home to the Great Liberator, as opposed to a place that accused MLK of being “the real racist.” That was a long time ago, I realize.)

Rivers speak change and, strangely enough, what is constant about change. They speak nature itself, and by extension, the soul: what is muddy glows golden in the sunlight. Our speaker, appropriately, lets his statement fade as daylight. In the moment, he has provided clarity, should one want the truth: “I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

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