Poem #38: The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleThe Negro Speaks of Rivers

Langston Hughes

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


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.


Hughes poem induces me to ask what is a river and what does it mean to know a river?  And is it really about singular rivers or rivers in the collective?  And what does it mean that the title draws out "The Negro Speaks of Rivers".  Who is the speaker of this poem?

The poem also makes me think about Heraclitus's quote, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." The river can be representative of a great many things: a network like veins (as he hints in the second line), momentum and progress, something that carries or pushes us along in a particular direction (to which we accept, stand still, or resist), a sign of reinforcement (hence the depth that develops).  

The third stanza is where we get some of the answers.  The speaker calls upon some of the greatest rivers in the world but they appear also to be rivers that at different times in history included formative civilizations and slavery. That may be misreading that but I'm unclear about the order of this stanza since it doesn't appear to be chronological in any way that makes (contemporary sense--there might have been a different chronology understood at the time).  Still, the speaker draws upon these rivers, most of which connect with a civilization and slavery with the last one being the one that Lincoln went down and which has "turn all golden in the sunset".  

So what does the speaker mean about having "known rivers"? It seems to denote some skepticism, some sense of knowing that rivers are powerful places for humans and also dangerous places.  But how then do we make sense of the repeated refrain that "My soul has grown deep like rivers".  Does this mean the speaker taps into the wisdom of these rivers?  

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

Did you enjoy this read? Let me know your thoughts down below or feel free to browse around and check out some of my other posts!. You might also want to keep up to date with my blog by signing up for them via email.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.