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Langston Hughes' "Life is Fine"

Updated on September 30, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Langston Hughes

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Life is Fine"

Langston Hughes' "Life is Fine" bears a striking resemblance to a rhythm and blues tune, a form that the Harlem Renaissance poet used often and well.

The poem plays out in six stanzas with a variable refrain following each two stanzas. The theme of this poem/blues tune is a lover's lament.

I went down to the river,
I set down on the bank.
I tried to think but couldn’t,
So I jumped in and sank.

I came up once and hollered!
I came up twice and cried!
If that water hadn’t a-been so cold
I might’ve sunk and died.

But it was Cold in that water! It was cold!

I took the elevator
Sixteen floors above the ground.
I thought about my baby
And thought I would jump down.

I stood there and I hollered!
I stood there and I cried!
If it hadn’t a-been so high
I might’ve jumped and died.

But it was High up there! It was high!

So since I’m still here livin’,
I guess I will live on.
I could’ve died for love—
But for livin’ I was born

Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry—
I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.

Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!

Reading of Langston Hughes' "Life is Fine"

Commentary

First Stanza: "I went down to the river"

The first stanza dramatizes the speaker/singer's attempt to commit suicide by drowning. After going "down to the river," the speaker sits down to think things over. He finds that he cannot think, so he abruptly jumps into the river.

Second Stanza: "I came up once and hollered!"

In the second stanza, the speaker dramatizes the notion that a drowning person comes up three times before sinking permanently beneath the water. He says that the first time he came up, he "hollered!" He does not report what he vocalized nor to whom he might have been "hollering."

The speaker/singer continues to the second time he came up, and that time he "cried!" He is growing more urgent in his painful condition. But instead of sinking a third time, the speaker jumps out of the water for the strange reason that the water was so cold. His dedication to suicide is impeded by the discomfort of having to suffer the cold water.

First Refrain: "But it was Cold in that water! It was cold!"_

The surprising turn of events is emphasized by the next line, which serves as a refrain, and at this point, the reader becomes aware of the comic effect that the speaker is infusing into his drama.

The speaker/singer repeats that fact that the water was cold. The cold water has actually become his best friend at that moment by saving him from drowning. He hops out of the river, not because he wanted to live but simply because he could not bear the discomfort of the cold water.

Third Stanza: "I took the elevator"

The speaker/singer continues his search for a comfortable method of suicide. He takes "the elevator up / Sixteen floors above the ground." He remembers that he is there because his girl jilted him, and he intends to kill himself by jumping off the sixteen-floor building.

Fourth Stanza: "I stood there and I hollered!"

Again, the same frame of mind claims him, and just as he had done in the cold river water, he stands there "holler[ing]" and "cry[ing]." This time the friend that keeps him from ending his life is the fact that the building is "so high."

Second Refrain: "But it was High up there! It was high!"

Once again, the refrain emphasizes the problem with jumping off the building. It was high. The speaker could not suffer the cold, and now he cannot suffer the height.

Fifth Stanza: "So since I'm still here livin'

The speaker decides to stop trying to commit suicide and "live on." He asserts that he could have died for love, but he decides that the better way to look at it is that he was born "for livin'."

Sixth Stanza: "Though you may hear me holler"

In the sixth stanza, the speaker not only decides to live, but he also decides to show some backbone about it, and even though he might still "holler" and "cry" because of the loss of his "sweet baby," he is not going to allow her to "see [him] die."

Final Refrain: "Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!"

The final refrain showcases a very different character from the suicidal weakling who appeared in the opening. The speaker has changed his thinking; he now sees that "Life is fine." So fine that he adds, "Fine as wine! Life is fine!"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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