Poem Analysis: The Negro Speaks of Rivers

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Poem Analysis: The Negro Speaks of Rivers

Style can be viewed as a choice of particular linguistic features, which produces a certain meaning and effect upon a reader. Also, style is closely related to the author’s personality, so that it reflects his/her mindset in writing. In such a way, the detailed examination of a literary text contributes significantly to better understanding of the sense constructed by an author. Generally speaking, the form and effect are interconnected and interdependent, which is why, it may be suggested that it is critical not to simply identify formal linguistic features for their own sake but to demonstrate their interpretation within a particular context. The current paper argues that each linguistic association, either on phonetic or lexical level is significant and, therefore, should be taken into consideration. Thus, the analysis of the verse The Negro Speaks of Rivers will help to illustrate how the author’s ideas are imparted by means of structural components.

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Word Selection

Nobody would deny the fact that the outstanding poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes genuinely epitomizes incredible wisdom and immensely rich cultural heritage of the Afro-American community. Namely, the author advances such themes as race, historical memory, slavery and freedom. For starters, it is increasingly important to mention that the poet uses the word negro to refer to the early twentieth century when this term revealed cultural identification of the Afro-American community. In this way, the theme of self-awareness and self-identification is brought into the surface (Miller, 2015). Hughes implicitly states that despite frequent occurrence of racial discrimination in the modern society, Afro-Americans should deeply respect their historical roots and, thus, celebrate their national presence. As a matter of fact, this term suggests that the major theme of the poem is dedicated to Afro-American experience. The word negro, however, appears only in the title, which is why the main ideas may be regarded as universal in nature and applicable to the people of all ethnicities.

It becomes abundantly clear that Langston Hughes deliberately employs the word river to render the main line of thought. In fact, the word is exploited throughout the poem, which is why, it may be assumed that the author repeatedly emphasizes that the Afro-American community is as wise and long-lasting as the most ancient rivers of the world. Further, the poet is inclined to think that Afro-Americans have a long-suffering history that dates back to the cradle of civilization when the slavery was introduced. Thus, he uses the simile “my soul has grown deep like the rivers” in order to highlight the fact that the strong memory of the past accrued gradually to the community and became wide experience, which they pass to the next generations (Trotman, 2014). By means of allusion, Hughes refers directly to the years of slavery when Abe Lincoln crossed Mississippi witnessing cruel injustice of slavery.

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Apart from the concept of river, the author selects such words as dusky, muddy and golden, so that a reader may notice the age-old confrontation between the light and the darkness. The epithets dusky and muddy rivers communicate author’s ideas about the centuries of intentional discrimination on the basis of race. Meanwhile, Hughes celebrates the present day by utilizing the metaphorical epithet golden bosom to designate the creation of open and tolerate society, living within American borders (Trotman, 2014). After all, these words create the effect of interplay of freedom and confinement, so that it promotes a certain view that one cannot live fruitfully without the memory of the historical past. Eventually, it is necessary to admit that the exact word choice gives the analyzed poem its beauty.

Rhythm and Sound

It is worth noticing that The Negro Speaks of Rivers is written in free verse, which means that the author ignores the rigid metrical rules to produce the effect of natural animated conversation. Thus, the poem does not contain the exact number of syllables per line or consistent stress pattern. This can be exemplified by the first line, which contains four syllables, and the second line, which has more than 20 syllables.

What is more, in the following poem, Hughes does not utilize such musical pattern as rhyme. However, the poem displays some elements of form, namely, the rhythm. Langston Hughes repeats the lines “I’ve known rivers” and “my soul has grown deep like the rivers”, which creates both the rhythm and the structure (Jeffries & McIntyre, 2010). In other words, it creates musical and cyclical pattern of raging river that flows into the sea. Remarkably, the given poetic technique conveys the vivid image of the Mississippi river, singing a song that can be compared to the traditional blues music where all the first lines are repeated. The sense of the river flowing left and right alternately is rendered with the help of enjambment of the lines. Similarly, a reader needs to search for the end of the line, moving his/her eyes in a zigzag manner (Miller, 2015). Apart from that, the personal pronoun I is constantly repeated throughout the poem, so that the poet is establishing the rapport with a reader. More importantly, the given anaphora creates the internal pattern of sounds and, therefore, makes it melodic and tuneful.

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In the same way, the presence of alliteration imparts melodic effect to the poem. The repetition of the consonant n in the fifth line and l in the sixth line in close succession supports the poet’s idea of flowing and signing river. Thus, the repetitive consonants prompt the sense of tranquility and security, since the author speaks of eternal nature (Trotman, 2014). Nonetheless, the sound produces emotional effect, which a reader may interpret in different ways.

For the same purpose, Langston Hughes exploits assonance “my soul has grown” to create internal rhyming within the fourth and thirteen lines, as well as to introduce the new structural component. Indeed, the following assonance compensates the absence of a full rhyme and gives the poem a strong rhythmic quality (Trotman, 2014). Nevertheless, it does not necessarily mean that it determines the structure of the poem in contrast to the alliteration. This phonetic stylistic device is generally viewed as an ornamental element, which, as a matter of fact, does not bear any lexical or other meaning. The above-mentioned are the main points regarding the rhythm and sound of the poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Overall, this poem maintains the rhythmic precision, while the rhyme schemes, stress pattern and meter appear random.


In conclusion, it is appropriate to make a general comment on linguistic materials that help the author to communicate his ideas in the verse The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Langston Hughes stresses the wise and experienced nature of Afro-American community by means of word selection. In other words, the repetition of the noun river fixes readers’ attention on the concept of wisdom and heritage and, therefore, intensifies the whole poem. The words dusky, muddy and golden are utilized to illustrate the turning point in the American history, when slavery was abolished. Besides, these words add weight to the poem’s message that slavery was the greatest crime committed against humans. Eventually, complicated rhythmic structure and sound build an intricate pattern that produces strong emotional effect.

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