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Langston Hughes' "Life Is Fine”

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Introduction and Excerpt from “Life is Fine"

Langston Hughes' "Life is Fine" plays out in six stanzas with a variable refrain following each two stanzas. The theme of this poem/blues tune is a lover's lament, one of Hughes' finer works

Life is Fine

I went down to the river,
I set down on the bank.
I tried to think but couldn’t,
So I jumped in and sank.

I came up once and hollered!
I came up twice and cried!
If that water hadn’t a-been so cold
I might’ve sunk and died.

But it was Cold in that water! It was cold!. . .

To read the rest of Langston Hughes’ poem, please visit, “Life is Fine,” at the Academy of American Poets.

Reading of "Life is Fine"

Commentary

This poem has the sound and sense of a rhythm and blues song, a form that the Harlem Renaissance poet used often and well.

First Stanza: Drowning Attempt

I went down to the river,
I set down on the bank.
I tried to think but couldn’t,
So I jumped in and sank.

The first stanza dramatizes the speaker/singer's attempt to commit suicide by drowning. After going "down to the river," the speaker sits down to think things over. He finds that he cannot think, so he abruptly jumps into the river.

Second Stanza: Saved by Cold

I came up once and hollered!
I came up twice and cried!
If that water hadn’t a-been so cold
I might’ve sunk and died.

In the second stanza, the speaker dramatizes the notion that a drowning person comes up three times before sinking permanently beneath the water. He says that the first time he came up, he "hollered!" He does not report what he vocalized nor to whom he might have been "hollering."

The speaker/singer continues to the second time he came up, and that time he "cried!" He is growing more urgent in his painful condition. But instead of sinking a third time, the speaker jumps out of the water for the strange reason that the water was so cold. His dedication to suicide is impeded by the discomfort of having to suffer the cold water.

First Refrain: Comedy Drama

But it was Cold in that water! It was cold!

The surprising turn of events is emphasized by the next line, which serves as a refrain, and at this point, the reader becomes aware of the comic effect that the speaker is infusing into his drama.

The speaker/singer repeats the fact that the water was cold. The cold water has actually become his best friend at that moment by saving him from drowning. He hops out of the river, not because he wanted to live but simply because he could not bear the discomfort of the cold water.

Third Stanza: Another Suicide Attempt

I took the elevator
Sixteen floors above the ground.
I thought about my baby
And thought I would jump down.

The speaker/singer continues his search for a comfortable method of suicide. He takes an elevator up the 16th floor of a tall building. He remembers that he is there because his girl jilted him, and he intends to kill himself by jumping from the sixteenth floor of the building.

Fourth Stanza: Saved by Height

I stood there and I hollered!
I stood there and I cried!
If it hadn’t a-been so high
I might’ve jumped and died.

Again, the same frame of mind claims him, and just as he had done in the cold river water, he stands there "holler[ing]" and "cry[ing]." This time the friend that keeps him from ending his life is the fact that the building is "so high."

Second Refrain: Tall Building

But it was High up there! It was high!

Once again, the refrain emphasizes the problem with jumping off the building. It was high. The speaker could not suffer the cold, and now he cannot suffer the height.

Fifth Stanza: Born to Live

So since I’m still here livin’,
I guess I will live on.
I could’ve died for love—
But for livin’ I was born

The speaker decides to stop trying to commit suicide and to continue living. He asserts that he could have died for love, but he decides that the better way to look at it is that he was born to live instead of dying by suicide.

Sixth Stanza: Bravery

Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry—
I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.

In the sixth stanza, the speaker not only decides to live, but he also decides to show some backbone about it, and even though he might still "holler" and "cry" because of the loss of his girlfriend and sweetheart, he is not going to allow her to be able to observe that he died because of losing her.

Final Refrain: A Changed Man

Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!

The final refrain showcases a very different character from the suicidal weakling who appeared in the opening. The speaker has changed his thinking; he now sees that living is the better option; living is a fine thing. Thus, he offers a cheery congratulatory rime: “Fine as wine!” He then repeats his newly found belief that life is worth living; thus, he completes agains the refrain that grew rather organically as he experienced his ironic suicide disqualifies of cold and height.

The Use of Irony

The two qualities of “cold” and “height” serve as ironic deterrents for the speaker, as they become the reasons he fails to conclude his decision to commit suicide. The speaker is suffering from the pain of losing this sweetheart, but he can’t suffer from the cold water in the river long enough to allow it to take his life. The same with the height. In order to die, he needs the building to be tall enough that falling from it would kill him, but again he can’t suffer the height of building long enough to hurl himself from its height.

The comedy/drama of this poem springs from the strange irony of one kind of suffering being foiled by a completely different sort. This irony results in a fascinating situation that allows the speaker to turn his situation around from suffering and disdain of life to gratitude and enjoyment of life. By the time the narration ends, the speaker is a very different person from the one at the outset.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes