The speaker goes to the river and sits down by the bank to think. He cannot concentrate so he jumps into the water and sinks. He surfaces and cries out twice. If the water had not been so frigid he would have died, he says, “But it was Cold in that water! It was cold!”
He takes the elevator to the sixteenth floor of his building, where he thinks about his “baby” and considers jumping. He stands up there and yells, and if it had not been so high, he might have leapt off and died. “But it was High up there! it was high!” He says.
He comments that since he is still living, he might as well live on. He might have died for love but he was born to live. He says to his baby that he would “dogged” if she were to see him die. He concludes, “Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!”
The spirited and jaunty “Life is Fine” is not one of Hughes’s more well-known works, but has many similarities to his other poems. It tells the story of a man with a jubilant spirit and the ability to remain optimistic in the face of personal despair. It is energetic and musical, and the structure resembles that of a blues song. The poem has six stanzas with a varied refrain at the end of each one. Hughes utilizes frequent repetition to emphasize his message.
The speaker describes going to the river to think, but finding himself unable to do so. He decides to commit suicide by drowning himself. However, instead of sinking like a stone, he keeps returning to the surface and “hollering” loudly. The freezing temperature of the water awakens his mind and body, preventing him from surrendering to death. In the first refrain, he describes how cold the water is, painting a vivid image of himself shivering and ejecting himself from the water repeatedly; he cannot seem to let death catch hold.
In the third stanza, the speaker clarifies that his inner turmoil is due to a romantic relationship gone sour. He takes the elevator up sixteen floors and thinks about how sad he is about his "baby." He considers jumping down but realizes how high it is and decides to refrain. Like the water's temperature, the speaker uses the height of the building as the reason for his decision not to commit suicide.
The poem's tone shifts during the fifth stanza. Finally the speaker concedes that since his suicide attempts "failed," he might as well remain living. Sure, he says, he could have died for love, but “for livin’ I was born.” By staring death in the face, the speaker has rediscovered his sense of purpose. He acknowledges that he might never find complete peace from the vicissitudes of life, he might still holler and cry sometimes, but he has decided that he will persevere and not let his “sweet baby” see him die. His last refrain gives the poem its title: “Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!”
In this poem, Hughes revisits a common theme in his work: perseverance. He understands the plight of his people and crafts a vulnerable character here who often considers giving up on life, but can never quite follow through - meaning that he still has something to live for. By coming so close to death, the speaker in "Life is Fine" finds a renewed desire to live.