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The Negro Speaks of Rivers -- Langston Hughes

(Poem #410) 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 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.
-- Langston Hughes
A theme which anywhere else would have sounded pretentious (even a touch racist,
in the title) is here imbued with a quiet dignity... I especially like the
wonderful 'richness' of its tone.



 Hughes, (James Mercer) Langston

        b. Feb. 1, 1902, Joplin, Mo., U.S.
        d. May 22, 1967, New York City

Black poet and writer who became, through numerous translations, one of the
foremost interpreters to the world of the black experience in the United States.
Hughes's parents separated soon after his birth, and young Hughes was raised by
his mother and grandmother. After his grandmother's death, he and his mother
moved to half a dozen cities before reaching Cleveland, where they settled. His
poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," written the summer after his graduation from
high school in Cleveland, was published in  Crisis (1921) and brought him
considerable attention.

After attending Columbia University (1921-22), he explored Harlem, forming a
permanent attachment to what he called the "great dark city." He worked as a
steward on a freighter bound for Africa. Back from seafaring and sojourning in
Europe, he won an Opportunity magazine poetry prize in 1925. He received the
Witter Bynner Undergraduate Poetry Award in 1926.

While working as a busboy in a hotel in Washington, D.C., Hughes put three of
his own poems beside the plate of Vachel Lindsay in the dining room. The next
day, newspapers around the country reported that  Lindsay had discovered a Negro
busboy poet. A scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania followed, and
before Hughes received his degree in 1929, his first two books had been

The Weary Blues (1926) was warmly received. Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) was
criticized harshly for its title and for its frankness, but Hughes himself felt
it represented a step forward. A few months after graduation Not Without
Laughter (1930), his first prose work, had a cordial reception. In the '30s his
poetry became preoccupied with political militancy; he travelled widely in the
Soviet Union, Haiti, and Japan and served as a newspaper correspondent (1937) in
the Spanish Civil War. He published a collection of short stories, The Ways of
White Folks (1934), and The Big Sea (1940), his autobiography up to the age of

Hughes wrote A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956), and the
anthologies The Poetry of the Negro (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958;
with Arna Bontemps). He also wrote numerous works for the stage, including the
lyrics for Street Scene, an opera with music by Kurt Weill. A posthumous book of
poems, The Panther and the Lash (1967), reflected the black anger and militancy
of the 1960s. Hughes translated the poetry of Federico García Lorca and Gabriela
Mistral. He was also widely known for his comic character Jesse B. Semple,
familiarly called Simple, who appeared in Hughes's columns in the Chicago
Defender and the New York Post and later in book form and on the stage. The
Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel,
appeared in 1994.

        -- EB


There's an essay on Langston Hughes and the 'Harlem Renaissance' at the
Smithsonian, [broken link]

[On Rivers]

The Nile, the Amazon, the Ganges, the Mississippi, the Congo, the Yangtze, the
Amur, the Don, the Volga, the Tiber, the Tigris and the Euphrates... rivers have
long been the source from which our civilization springs. And they're celebrated
in our culture as well, from Horatius at the Bridge to Steamboat Willie. I leave
you with this quick quiz - identify the poems from which these river quotes are

1. 'At sixteen you departed,
    You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
    And you have been gone five months.'
2. 'Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song!' (two possible answers!)
3. 'Oh, Tiber! Father Tiber!
        To whom the Romans pray,
    A Roman's life, a Roman's arms,
        Take thou in charge this day!'
4. 'From the Gate of Kings the North Wind rides, and past the roaring falls;
    And clear and cold about the tower its loud horn calls.'
5. 'I chatter, chatter, as I flow
        To join the brimming river,
    For men may come and men may go,
        But I go on for ever.. '

Answers the next time I run a river poem (i.e, tomorrow, if I can find one).

25 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Bulldogsrule25 said...

I am in the eighth grade and my Reading class is reading this poem. I find
this poem very hard to understand.

Crystal Chevalier said...

I am doing a report on Langston Hughes and I think I will put in in.

stasolla rebecca said...

This is a really cool poem!

john.crean said...

the poem is incomplete in your version the final lines are missing

Ashley Black said...

Such a deep poem

Nana Akua said...

this shows how wise he was at 17

Anonymous said...

the afro-american identity of the poet finds affirmation,the nile(african river),mississippi(american river) are brought together-contributing in the identity formation of the poet. langston african ancestry,his past finds mention as he refers to the nile and congo,african river and an african residing in america and being influenced by it,both cultures have contributed to his identity formation.
New orleans,as an american town known for its slavery, is alluded to,as he refers to historical moment of abraham lincon going to new orleans after civil war.the poets voice is not that of a single person,but of collective afro-american experience of all such people,thus "growing deep".

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