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Langston Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

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.

Note on Usage

In 1988, Rev. Jesse Jackson convinced Americans to adopt the usage of the phrase "African American." "Negro" and "colored" were the common, accepted terms at the time this poet was writing.

Introduction and Text of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

The "cosmic voice" remains a useful device for poets making a sweeping, philosophic/historic statement. Langston Hughes' use of the cosmic voice is masterful in his classic poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

A similar concept in literary studies is the omniscient narrator. The cosmic voice, however, has a far greater range than the omniscient narrator, whose knowledge and voice are limited to the individual set of events in the story or poem in focus.

The cosmic voice includes the ability to speak for all of humanity, not merely the characters or speakers in a certain literary piece.

Hughes has stated that upon viewing the Mississippi River from a train, he started to muse on what the Mississippi and various other world rivers have meant to people of his race.

That his poem features emotions and ideas that cut across racial lines and becomes "cosmic" in its nature demonstrates the strength of the poet's skill: to express feelings and thoughts that are both personal and universal is the main goal of poetry creation.

The Cosmic Voice in Poetry

A "cosmic voice" in poetry is employed to provide a deep and wide view of historical events. Time and space may stretch or contract as needed as the cosmic seer reports what he sees, hears, or otherwise experiences.

Although a "cosmic voice" may come to a poet through a vivid imagination, it transcends the imagination as a truth-teller.

The cosmic voice and its communications reveal truth through deep intuition. The soul of the speaker employing the cosmic voice is, even if only temporarily, aware of its vast and profound knowledge. The cosmic voice moves from a place far beyond sense awareness.

Readers/listeners who hear the cosmic voice and understand it are moved beyond their own sense awareness to comprehend the unity of all created things. They move into the realm of their Creator and return as transformed beings for having experienced the Sacred Locus.

Langston Hughes and the Cosmic Voice

The voice employed in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is the cosmic voice—the voice of the soul that knows itself to be a divine entity. That voice speaks with inherent authority; it reports its intuitions so that others might hear and regain their own experiences through its guidance.

Langston Hughes' speaker in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" imparts his discourse in five versagraphic movements. His theme explores through employment of the cosmic voice that unites all of humanity.

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The vital lines that serve as a refrain, "I've known rivers" and "My soul has grown deep like the rivers," work like a chant, instilling in the listener the truth that the speaker wishes to impart.

That Langston Hughes was able to employ a cosmic voice in a poem at age eighteen is quite remarkable, and his marvelous accomplishment with this early poem speaks to his literary achievement as a master craftsman.

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.

Hughes Reads "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"


Langston Hughes' speaker in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" frames his discourse in five versagraphic movements, thematically exploring using the "cosmic voice" that unites all of humanity.

First Movement: The River as a Symbol

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow
of human blood in human veins.

The poem opens with the speaker stating that he has experienced the nature of rivers: he has watched as rivers flow in their channels, and he has been reminded that rivers flow through the earth as blood flows through the veins of human beings.

Both flowing rivers and flowing blood are ancient, but the speaker senses that the flow of the rivers predates the appearance of the human being upon the earth.

The river image serves as a symbol that links all of humanity from pre-dawn history to the present day. As the "river" serves to carry the mind and body over the rough terrain of earth and rocks, the symbolic river carries the soul on its divine journey.

The reader/listener will intuit the significance of the speaker's focus, which ranges far beyond the boundaries of the physical universe.

Second Movement: Intuitive Awareness

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

This line indicates that the speaker has become aware that through his own soul, he can intuit historical events, places, and people, who have existed from the beginning to time. The line becomes a refrain and will be encountered again in the poem because of its importance.

It is obvious that the speaker would not have been able to know literally the rivers of antiquity that he claims to "know." However, through his soul, or mystical awareness, he can. Thus, he again employs the cosmic and mystical voice to make his assertion.

Third Movement: Historical Unity

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.

The speaker asserts that he "bathed in the Euphrates" at the dawning of Western civilization. From the Euphrates to the Mississippi Rivers, the speaker offers a huge expansion of time and place. From biblical times to the present, he lays claim to knowledge, again impossible except for soul consciousness.

Awareness through the soul is unlimited, unlike the limitations of body and mind. Of course, the speaker could not have experienced the Euphrates when "dawns were young." But the cosmic voice of the speaker can place itself at any point along the timeline of civilization.

In claiming to have built his "hut near the Congo," the speaker continues his cosmic, mystically inspired journey. He "looked upon the Nile" and "raised the pyramids" only as a cosmic-voiced speaker.

The speaker unites all races, nationalities, creeds, and religions in his gathering of historic experiences within which all those peoples have lived. And he does it through the symbolic force of the "river." People of all times and climes have been influenced by the river experience.

Emphasizing the American experience, the speaker claims to have "heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went / down to New Orleans . . . ." The allusion to President Lincoln reminds the reader of the process of slave emancipation.

As with all the rivers mentioned, the Mississippi River, an American river, stands as a symbol of the blood of all the human race. And the Mississippi River, as the earlier mention of rivers has done, symbolizes the human blood.

Fourth Movement: A Soul Chant

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

Because of the importance of the "river" as a symbol, the speaker repeats the line, "I've known rivers."

Like the line, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers," this one also serves as a refrain. If the speaker had chanted the line many more times, the poem's delightful charm would have even been enhanced—that line is that important!

The soul, the river, the depth of the soul and the river—all force history to yield a mighty blessing on those who have "known rivers," and whose souls have grown deep like those rivers.

Thus, the speaker offers a brief description of how those rivers appear: they are extremely old, and they are mystically dark, a measure that alludes to the Negro race with graceful precision, even as it holds all races as having experienced the nature of the mystic river.

Fifth Movement: Life Force and the Symbol of the River

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

The speaker's soul has grown deep like the rivers and along with the rivers. The soul is the life force informing and maintaining the body while rivers stream through the earth giving life force to civilizations and also maintaining them with the products that river travel has allowed over the centuries.

The speaker takes his own identity from the energetic force of the soul and the river force of the earth. The children of God all spring forth from a common ancestry, a symbolic set of original parents. Rivers have always linked all of those ancestors as the blood in their veins links them as one family—the Human Race.

The cosmic voice of a young black poet has rendered a statement that could enlighten and reconnect all peoples if only they could listen with their own cosmic awareness.

At the soul level, all human beings remain eternally linked as children of the Great Divine River King, who flows in the blood of the children and the rivers of the planet on which they find themselves, too often segregated by ignorance of their own common, soul possession.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on July 22, 2018:

Thank you, Katharine. So nice to hear from you. Yes, this poem is one of my favorites. It demonstrates an amazing accomplishment by such a young poet. I do believe it is the best poem Hughes ever wrote, and he did craft some fine work over his career. But in this poem, the beauty that balances with cosmic truth and human history does so in such a profound way that it would be difficult for any poet to match such an achievement in his later years. Still Langston Hughes always remains a poet worth careful study.

Katharine L Sparrow from Massachusetts, USA on July 21, 2018:

What a gentle and noble poem! I have read Hughes, but don't remember this one! I'm so glad you've written about it here. Explanation is clear and detailed and the video is moving. Very nice article you've done!

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