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Hughes' Poem

The persona of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, a thirteen line poem written in free verse by Langston Hughes, has much in common with the persona of the song lyric “Old Man River.” For in that song, the persona is mature, wise and accepting of the eternal ebb and flow of life, the transitory nature of one individual’s life in the scheme of time and space, and he just, like the river, keeps on rolling along. In a similar way, the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” contains similar themes and a comparable persona.

In this poem, the persona is alive in the here-and-now, but he feels a deep connection not only with all humanity but also with all history, “I’ve known rivers:/I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the/flow of human blood in human veins” (Hughes 1). We assume the speaker is mature and wise because of an acceptance and recognition of his connection to all humanity, but also because he informs us that his “soul has grown deep like the rivers” (Hughes 1). The poem then expands from the individual or personal level to the universal level when the speaker informs us that he has “bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young”, “built [his] hut near the Congo”, “looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it”, and “heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln/went down to New Orleans” (Hughes 1). Therefore, the speaker might be said to be having a transcendental moment. He is feeling his connection to all time, all space and all humanity.

While “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” contains the above sentiments and themes, it does not make any kind of statement in regard to them. It does not provide any answers, in fact, it does not even asks any questions. Instead, it is merely a reflection of the speaker’s mood and feeling and experiences. It does not result in some kind of absolute answer regarding these feelings


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Hughes' Poem. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 20:34, May 25, 2020, from