Langston Hughes Essay, Research Paper
February 19, 2001
The writing style of Langston Hughes is best described as reflective of the lyric style and format of the blues, a musical genre that became popular in America at approximately the same time as his poetry. The lyrics of a stereotypical blues song start with a line. This line is immediately repeated almost verbatim. The final line of a blues stanza then concludes the emphasized thought of the first two lines. This form is demonstrated in Hughes poem Morning After . Although his poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers does not resemble the blues format as precisely, the form is essentially there, largely contributing to the effect of the poem.
The most apparent resemblance The Negro Speaks of Rivers has with blues lyrics is repetition. Lines one through three express a general idea regarding the speaker s knowledge of rivers. In lines eight through ten, the general idea is repeated. Lines one and eight are identical, as are lines three and ten. However, line nine is a condensed version of line two. In line two the speaker says, I ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins . This line is reduced to Ancient, dusky rivers in line nine. Perhaps the speaker feels that lines four through seven illustrate the idea of line two, and it is therefore unnecessary to repeat line two. Placing these similar (and indeed, nearly identical) sets of lines at the beginning and end of the poem give a much better introduction and conclusion to the poem than the typical blues format. By retaining the repetition yet restructuring the blues format, Hughes conveys a different effect than actual blues lyrics.
In typical blues lyrics, the unique line in each stanza is usually the last line of the stanza. This placement contrasts the last line with the previous two lines, which are usually identical. This contrast affects the listener in that the last line concludes or finishes the thought of the first two lines. In The Negro Speaks of Rivers , Hughes chose to place the contrasting last line amidst the two identical lines . Lines four through seven continue and conclude the idea of the speaker knowing rivers. The speaker achieves this conclusion in lines four through seven because in them he specifies which rivers he has know and why they were important rivers. The impact of the rivers is the cause of the growth of his soul. The rivers the speaker chooses to specify produce an effect of their own. The first aspect of the list of rivers that one notices is that the occurrences around the rivers appear to be in chronological order. This is true for at least lines four, six, and seven. The speaker mentions young dawns near the Euphrates, signifying an early Biblical time perhaps the Garden of Eden (4). The next clear reference is the raising of the pyramids around the Nile (6). This undoubtedly happened after the creation of the Earth. The last reference is of Abe Lincoln traveling to New Orleans down the Mississippi (7). This happened last chronologically, and is therefore the last line of the stanza. The only discrepancy with the chronology is line five. The speaker makes no reference to any specific time that he built his hut near the Congo. However, it is safe to assume that the speaker built his hut after bathing in the Euphrates and prior to looking upon the Nile because the other three lines are chronological; line five must also be so.
Along with being chronological, lines four through seven convey a sense of heightening importance to what is occurring close to the river. In line four, the speaker witnesses the early days of the earth. In line five, the speaker finds his native land (as a Negro) in the depths of Africa. In line six, the speaker witnesses the raising of the Egyptian pyramids, signifying the triumph of man over nature. However, it is upon the last line of the stanza his viewing of Abraham Lincoln traveling the Mississippi that he places the most importance. To a Negro, Abraham Lincoln signifies freedom and human equality. By placing this line last, the speaker places more importance upon Abraham Lincoln s work than that of the Egyptians, himself, and even God.
Hughes also makes a visual reference to the theme of the impact of the rivers. The beginning of each line is aligned on the left side of the page. However, the lines range in length from three words (1, 8, 9) to twenty-seven words (7). In fact, lines two and seven are so lengthy that they do not fit the width of the page and must be brought down. The left side of the continuation is indented, signifying this contingency to the words directly above. This variation in length produces a visual effect that draws the reader s eyes back and forth across the page when the reader views only the ending of each line. This visual effect is comparable to that of an actual river, winding its way through the earth.
Although often strict with his adherence to the structure of blues lyrics, Hughes chooses to vary the style in his poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers . The variation of placing the conclusion in the center of the poem produces an effect both within the misplaced stanza and within the poem as a whole. The reader identifies the theme of the poem, realizes how the speaker came to this conclusion, and then the theme is restated at the end. This allows the reader to fully understand the theme of the poem: the large impact the rivers have upon his soul.