The Negro Speaks of Rivers

by Langston Hughes

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What is the mood of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"?

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The mood of the poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is dignified and wise. Langston Hughes establishes a connection between the ancient rivers of the past, which birthed civilization, to the prominent Mississippi, where slaves were traded throughout America. The speaker exudes confidence and wisdom by repeatedly...

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saying, "I’ve known rivers." Rivers symbolically represent the passage of time, history, and influence. In the middle section of the poem, the speaker illustrates his connection to the past, which shapes his current culture and understanding of humanity. The three mighty rivers (Euphrates, Congo, and Nile) carry history, ideas, culture, tradition, and the memories of majestic kingdoms in Africa with them to America. The speaker's confession that his soul has grown deep like the rivers also establishes a connection between the human essence and the mighty, ancient waterways. The final line of the poem reestablishes the speaker's dignified nature and understanding of his culture's rich history. Much like the deep African rivers which shaped civilization, the speaker's soul, essence, and culture will continue to impact future societies.

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The mood is solemn and proud.

Consider the first line, which is repeated in the second: "I've known rivers." The speaker's use of the present perfect tense evokes knowledge that was acquired in the past, but has not been forgotten. The speaker's use of anaphora, or the repetition of words at the beginning of two or more lines, emphasizes certainty.

The use of rivers as a metaphor in relation to the black American experience is interesting. Rivers are deep ("My soul has grown deep like the rivers") and run along their course. They always move in one direction—forward, toward the oceans or seas. If Hughes's metaphor is applied to black culture and experience, one could use it to contemplate the depth of that heritage and its broader benefit, not just to American culture, but to world culture—the ocean in which the river releases itself. 

The speaker refers to him or herself as "I" throughout the poem. In this first-person pose, no gender is assigned. "The Negro" could be a man or woman. The speaker's experiences of rivers through time—from the birth of civilization (the Euphrates) to the New World (the Mississippi)—also makes him or her ageless. 

The effect on the reader is to express the richness and depth of black culture and history.

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