Books & Music
Food & Wine
Health & Fitness
Hobbies & Crafts
Home & Garden
News & Politics
Religion & Spirituality
Travel & Culture
TV & Movies
Langston Hughes' Cosmic Voice
Hughes wrote his best poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” when he was only eighteen years old. Despite his descent into simplism and banality in his later work, this poem shows the brilliant talent he possessed as a young poet. Born James Langston Hughes on February 1, 1902, died May 22, 1967, this poet became the central figure of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
(Hughes' uses the term “Negro,” because the term “African American” was not yet in vogue at the time he was writing.)
The speaker in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" delivers his claims in a cosmic voice that extends throughout all time and space. This voice includes all peoples. Hughes' speaker in this poem portrays an interest that far exceeds racial limitations. This speaker embraces the “soul,” not merely the body or the mind.
The poem begins, “I've known rivers: / I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the / flow of human blood in human veins.” The river symbolizes the linkage of all human life from the earliest time to the present. From these first two lines we realize that the speaker’s focus is far beyond the limitations of the physical world.
Obviously, the speaker cannot literally have known these ancient rivers through physical sense awareness; he is writing from the perspective that he has known the rivers in earlier lives and that remembrance can only continue through soul awareness.
He continues naming rivers that represent the history of Western culture. From the Euphrates to the Mississippi, the history of mankind from Biblical times to the period of the American Civil War is represented. The Euphrates is considered the cradle of Western civilization. The speaker of the poem claims to have "bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.” Thus the cosmic voice begins at the origin of civilization.
Again we know the speaker is not speaking literally because he could not have done these things in his present incarnation, but through soul awareness he intuits the experience.
The speaker then moves westward to the Congo claiming, “I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.” Here he focuses on the African experience, as he does in the following line, “I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.”
Neither claim limits the voice to a black voice, because the white and yellow races have lived along the Congo and were among the slaves employed by the ancient Egyptians in constructing the pyramids. The cosmic voice not only extends back through time and space but also includes the myriad races and peoples who have had these river experiences.
Hughes' cosmic voice unites the races in one* cosmic person. He highlights the American experience claiming, “I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln / went down to New Orleans . . . .” Lincoln reminds us of the process of emancipation of slaves, and the Mississippi River, as the earlier mention of rivers has done, symbolizes the human blood of all races.
The speaker repeats “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” Because the soul** is the life force of the body, the stream of energy, the person who recognizes that his soul has grown deep recognizes his own identity.
In this poem the river symbolizes the link of mankind as the blood in the body is believed to be linked because we are all children of God, and thus we have the common ancestry originating with Adam and Eve, the symbolical first parents.
The cosmic speaker portrays selfhood and recognizes his roots, his identity as a child of not only one set of biological parents but as a child of the Cosmos (or of God), and he is linked with all humanity, all races, all creeds for all time through the depth of his own soul.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is Hughes’ masterpiece and should be the one that highlights the poet’s accomplishments. If all poets had just one poem of this quality, just one poem for which they are chiefly known, then all of their other work might be considered mere exercises in preparation, which would be well worth the effort. In Hughes’ case he hit this level at a young age, before the world of delusion had fogged his poetic vision.
| Related Articles | Editor's Picks Articles | Top Ten Articles | Previous Features | Site Map
Content copyright © 2013 by Linda Sue Grimes. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Linda Sue Grimes. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Linda Sue Grimes for details.
Website copyright © 2013 Minerva WebWorks LLC. All rights reserved.