Explanation of the "Riverbank Blues" Poem
The poem "Riverbank Blues" by Sterling A. Brown was originally published in 1929, before its inclusion in Brown's book of poems entitled "Southern Road." A prominent writer who earned his master's in English at Harvard University, Brown's work, including "Riverbank Blues," reflects its place in the Harlem Renaissance. However, although the poem addresses the struggles of African Americans in mid-century America, its themes are universal.
The river in "Riverbank Blues" represents what may cynically be viewed as the inevitable -- the unceasing flow of time and events that overwhelm the weak-willed. Its "sticky mudbank" and "long roots" tempt the narrator to remain where he is, to stop trying. "Baby, hyeahs de way life go ... " it says, coaxing him to sit down without participating in life. With its "yellow water in his blood," the river gets inside him, keeping him "soaked and stranded" and too weak to fight against the current. The river relentlessly tempts him to just go along with things the way it does, lazily taking the path of least resistance.
The narrator of "Riverbank Blues" is threatened not only by the river's coaxing, but by the "Lazy sun shinin'" and the "Lazy moon glistenin'" overhead. His surroundings create an inertia of paralysis that leads to "No need for hopin', no need for doin'." However, the narrator fights against being dragged down. He knows he cannot just sit beside the riverbank, watching, day after day and night after night. He knows he "Better be movin'...better be travelin'" so that life doesn't pass him by. Before being lulled into apathy, something in him "rared up" and he found the fortitude to continue.
"Towns are sinkin' deeper, deeper in de riverbank," says the narrator. Resigned to the irresistible force of the river, some people have stopped trying fight against its current. Instead of "rarin' up" as the narrator does, they surrender to what they view as inevitable. They adopt the "ways of deir sulky Old Man" and reflect his "evil ways" of passivity. By doing nothing to change things for the better, they begin to believe the river's lie that events depend on fate and cannot be altered or reversed.
The narrator ends by offering advice to those who heed the call of the lazy river. "Bes' git way, a long way ... whiles you can," he says, "Man got his sea too lak de Mississippi." Other paths exist and no time should be lost setting out to seek a better life for all of mankind. "Man better move some," says the narrator, or else by sitting still too long people will lose the will to seek change. He also has a warning for those who can't find a way to move forward and are left behind: "... better not git rooted Muddy water fool you, ef you stay ... "
Karen Clark has been writing professionally since 2001. Her work includes articles on gardening, education and literature. Clark has also published short literary fiction in the "Southern Humanities Review" and has co-authored a novel. Her professional experience includes teaching and tutoring students of all ages in literature, history and writing. She holds a Bachelor of the Arts in political science and a Master of Fine Arts in writing.