Speaking for the African race (“negro” was the preferred term in 1921), the “I” of this poem links people of African descent to an ancient, natural, life-giving force: rivers. By asserting that he has “known rivers ancient as the world,” the speaker asserts that he, and people of African descent, have an understanding of elemental forces in nature that precede civilization. In the first two lines, the speaker refers to rivers as a natural force outside himself. Line 3 likens the human body to earth by comparing rivers to “human blood in human veins.” Line 4 personalizes that comparison as the speaker compares the depth of his soul to the depth of rivers. In the space of four lines the speaker moves from historically and symbolically associating himself and his people with rivers to metaphorically imagining rivers as part of his blood and soul. Rather than one human relationship to rivers emerging as true or primary, each of these associations intertwine.
Lines 5 – 7
Line 5 lets the reader know that the “I” is no mortal human speaker, but the mythic, timeless voice of a race. To have “bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young,” in prehistory, the speaker must be millions of years old. In lines 5 through 7, the speaker establishes the race’s ties to great, culturally rich civilizations along famous rivers in the Middle East and Africa. The Euphrates River was the cradle of ancient Babylonia. It flows from Turkey through Syria and modern Iraq. The Congo originates in central Africa and flows into the Atlantic. The Nile, which runs from Lake Victoria in Uganda in Africa through Egypt to the Mediterranean, was the site of ancient Egyptian civilization. The speaker’s actions show that he reveres the river and depends on it for multiple purposes. He bathes in the water, builds his hut next to it, listens to its music as he falls asleep, and is consoled or inspired by the river when, as a slave in Egypt, he builds the great pyramids.