Analysis of Langston Hughes Poetry

April 7, 2018 Cultural

Steven R. Goodman AASP100 England May 5, 2010 Reaction #2 Langston Hughes Poetry A Literary Analysis of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” The Harlem Renaissance can be considered as “the cultural boom” in African-American history. Spanning from the 1920s into the mid-1930s, the Harlem Renaissance was an apex in African-American intellectualism. The period is also recognized as the “New Negro Movement”—named after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke. Alain LeRoy Locke was an American educator, writer, and philosopher, who most consider as the father of the Harlem Renaissance.

Historians recall him as a leader and chief interpreter of the movement. In his anthology, he brings out a montage of works by many well-known Africans and African-Americans including such figures as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jacob Lawrence, Richmond Barth, William Grant Still, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Bunche, and John Dewey (Locke). One of these figures wrote one of the most profound poems still read today. Langston Hughes was an American poet whose most prominent works came out during the Harlem Renaissance.

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The poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was Hughes’ first published poem and it was his signature too. Only 17 years old when he wrote it, Hughes created the poem while he was on a train headed to Mexico where he would live with his father for a year. As his train crossed the Mississippi River, he was astonished by how beautiful the river was and the thought of how that river had a role in maintaining slavery in America came into his mind and he started writing. Let’s start off with the title. The title has the term “negro” in it. Now how can we identify this?

Well, the term “negro” tells us about the time period which takes us back to the early 20th century when “negro” was self-identifiable with the black community for that is the term that they adopted. However, we see that the term is only used in the title which places emphasis on its overall collective meaning of the ideas it portrays. Now let us dive into the poem. There are two metaphorical themes in this poem and they are “rivers” and “darkness. ” In line one, the Hughes says, “I’ve known rivers. ” In this line, “I,” the speaker, is standing for the entire black community throughout history.

All of the rivers mentioned in the poem constitute as part of an extended metaphor that is comparing the souls of black people to the ancient, wise, and great rivers of the Earth (Shmoop). In the line two, the simile, “as ancient as the world,” is constructed to emphasize the comparison of the age of the rivers to the age of the Earth. In line three, we see rivers being used as a metaphor to depict the rivers of blood that flow through human veins. So the flow of blood in veins is compared to the flow of rivers. In line for, Hughes creates a simile comparing how deep his soul is to how deep the rivers are.

Now as we get to line five the story of the path of the black community in history unfolds. In line five we start off with the first river, the Euphrates River, which is supposedly where all life began; known as the cradle of civilization. Hughes notes that he bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. This symbolizes that there was peace and freedom. Line six entails the black community’s journey into central western Africa. In line six we continue with the second river, the Congo River, where he built his hut and it lulled him to sleep. The black community is still undergoing peace and freedom.

They are building a civilization. In line seven we see Hughes going into the third river, the Nile River. Now in line seven, we can certainly say that freedom hasn’t necessarily stopped, but history has shown that black people amongst white people, and yellow people were slaves and all participated in the building of the pyramids. Lastly, Hughes enters into the fourth and final river, the Mississippi River. Hughes describes here the moment in history when Abraham Lincoln sailed the Mississippi River and he witnessed the horrors of slavery at its finest.

In this same line, Hughes has the river come alive when he describes the river singing. In lines nine and ten Hughes creates some imagery when he tells of how the sun setting on the Mighty Muddy Mississippi R. changed its color to gold. He also personifies the river when he depicts it having a “bosom” acquiring feminine attributes. The second theme of “darkness” can only be seen when literally picking away at the poem. We see that Hughes is very descriptive when he introduces darkness and light throughout the poem. In lines nine and ten we see Hughes describing how the Mississippi R. oes from “muddy” to “golden” as the sun departs and the night arrives. So we can also take from this as muddy being a metaphor for skin color when talking about slavery. Once the river becomes golden, slavery is abolished and slaves are freed. As we view the word “dusky” when describing the nature of the rivers, the metaphor can be not just for skin color, but also to remind our reader about the author’s past which haunts him. In line 13 the poem ends with “My soul has grown deep like the rivers. ” What can we take from this?

Everytime the black civilization moves to a different point in time, the rivers get deeper, as well as the black man’s soul. The author has seen the upbringing of civilizations, he has contributed in building the pyramids, and he has witnessed slavery being abolished. This poem is a time machine of events. In conclusion, Langston Hughes was a New Negro because as a voice for the black community, through his poetry he influenced other people to take pride in their heritage, culture, and triumphs noting racism when needed while showing pride in the black community. Alain Locke. ” The #1 Site for African American Literature – Books, Novels, Authors, Movies, Resources, Discussion and More African Diaspora. Web. 06 May 2010. http://aalbc. com/authors/Alainlocke. htm. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers Symbolism, Imagery & Wordplay. ” Shmoop: Study Guides & Teacher Resources. Web. 06 May 2010. http://www. shmoop. com/negro-speaks-of-rivers/symbolism-imagery. html.


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