A Slave’s Soul Runs Deep
The poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ by Langston Hughes is about a man with a vast knowledge and understanding of rivers. The first two sentences of the poem are similar, as in both Hughes states, ‘I’ve known rivers’. From this the reader gathers that this man has been around rivers and probably lived around rivers. He talks about different experiences he has had on four different rivers. For example he says, ‘I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young’ and this gives the impression that he was around long ago when the river was just starting to form. Another quote, ‘I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans’ shows a passage of time from the first quote as this historically places him in a much more modern time frame. On an unobjective level I think that this is a poem about different rivers that Hughes feels attached to for some unexplained reason. However, based on a close reading I would argue through the explication approach that this poem can be seen in a different light. While some may argue otherwise, I believe that on an explicative level Hughes is creating a comparison between his soul and the rivers. In taking a closer look at many different aspects such as genre, my close reading interpretation, and outside research I have reached a conclusion. I have discovered that Hughes did a wonderful job of describing the slave experience as seen through his soul and the souls of all others who have experienced slavery.
I believe that Hughes’ poem is oral. It seems to read as if he is passionately reciting to some fictional audience. It makes sense for his presentation to be oral as he is describing his history as well as the slavery issue, two topics he would think it important for people to hear. At the same time, Hughes writes in prose. This suggests a seriousness to his poetry which would be fitting to my interpretation of his poem.
While trying to interpret Hughes’ poem, I found that the explication process worked best. I periodically went through the entire poem focusing on perhaps one line and what that meant, and then moving to a different line. I continued this process until I had enough of it solved to unravel the whole. I chose this approach because it worked well with the poem. The poem seemed to read like a story and this made it easy to interpret one line, and then to pick up and move to a different line.
I would start explaining my interpretation of Hughes’ poem by saying that it is full of metaphors and similes. In several places Hughes refers to the rivers as being old. In line two he uses the word ‘ancient’ to describe them and again in line twelve. I originally thought that the rivers represented time but I now believe that they represent the speaker’s soul. My interpretation of this poem is a narrative sprinkled with similes that repeatedly make this comparison of the rivers and the speaker’s soul. The narrative begins when the speaker says that he ‘bathed in the Euphrates river when dawns were young’. This could represent his birth or a time when he was young or young at heart. Bathing is often associated with baptism and this usually occurs at birth. Next he comments, ‘I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep’. I believe this could be a memory of his early manhood, probably at a time when he is living in Africa and is still asleep (or not aware of) the institution of slavery. Then he states, ‘I looked upon the Nile and raised the Pyramids above it’. It seems to me that he is a slave at this point, looking at his finished work that rises above the Nile. In truth, slaves actually were the people who built the great Pyramids and this fact can be used to substantiate my claim. Lastly, when he comments, ‘I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen it’s muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset’ I think the speaker is starting to see the first historic break away from slavery. Abe Lincoln was one of the first people to get the ball rolling and speak against slavery. The river turning muddy to golden could theoretically be the start of hope and realization that a better tomorrow is possible. In his last line the speaker says, ‘My soul has grown deep like the rivers’. I am convinced that anyone having seen and witnessed all that has been described would have had to develop a very deep soul.
The issue of slavery played a strong role in Hughes’ life. At an early age, Hughes was forced to come to terms with the fact that his grandfather had been lynched. A quote of Hughes clearly demonstrates his feelings towards this issue, ‘I swear to the Lord I still cant see, why Democracy means everybody but me.’ In other poems written by Hughes the issue of slavery again arises. For example, in ‘Negro’ Hughes states that he’s been a slave, and reminds us of when Belgians were so cruel to the slaves while occupying the Congo. At Hughes’ funeral the people recited ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’. This clearly demonstrates how truly important the issue of slavery was to him and how his life had become symbolized by the poem.
This poem at first seemed straightforward to me. As I read it more closely and thought about it more I began to put bits and pieces together. I think Hughes has done a wonderful job of describing the slave experience, from the beginning of his narrative to the end, which is when he starts to realize that a brighter future might exist. The way it was written made me really think about what it was Hughes was trying to say. This poem made me realize that a great many people suffered as slaves. These people lived their whole lives in this capacity, most without hope of any change of status. I felt like I was putting together a jigsaw puzzle and it was a good feeling when I finally saw what I believe Hughes wanted me to see.