In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the speaker uses several perspectives and tenses. Although they consistently speak in the first person, the speaker is not simply an individual but more generally serves as a collective and abstract self—the “Negro” of the title. The change from individual to general is marked by a shift in tense from present perfect to past tense. “I have known” is present perfect, contracted to “I’ve known.”
The poet uses anaphora, or repetition of initial words or phrases, throughout the poem. He begins a sequence of sentences with “I” followed by a verb in past tense: “I bathed,” “I built.” This also shows parallelism. Hughes also repeats the first sentence, “I’ve known rivers,” later in the poem as well as expanding on it in the second line.
Opposition is also employed throughout. In the second line, the speaker mentions “ancient” rivers, while in Line 4 they mention “young” dawn. Later “sunset” is mentioned, the opposite of dawn. Action shown in “I built” and “I raised” is contrasted to the passive rest of “sleep.”
Imagery dominates the figurative language, as the speaker evokes different time periods and world regions with descriptions of notable elements, such as the pyramids. Different senses are used, including sight and hearing. Synecdoche, the use of a part to stand for the whole, is employed throughout the poem, as each river stands for the entire civilization of the territory through which it passes. Metaphor include the comparison of rivers to human veins, and thus of water to blood. “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” is a simile comparing the speaker’s soul and rivers.