Poetry Explication Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son”

1040 words | 4 page(s)

Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son” is a seminal piece of African American poetry. It takes the form a deceptively complex direct address in which a mother addresses her son and explains the details of the poverty that she has endured throughout her life, at the same time as offering encouragement. While this simple encouragement and motivation may appear to be the basic framework of the poem, the work also distils much of African American experience and represents how this experience may be passed on between generations of individuals. It is this combination of address, history and transmission which makes up the three elements of the poem; each one of them being mediated by the delicate use of imagery and short and clear line breaks present throughout.

The first line of Hughes’ poem clearly introduces the everyday nature of its language and also the theme of hardship and the overcoming of tradition that it will come to embody. The speaker begins with the words: “Well, son, I’ll tell you: / Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (Hughes, 2015). This opening both generates an informal atmosphere in the poem, and establishes a relationship between the speaker and the reader. This relationship is one based on experience and communication. The speaker is established as an individual who will impart a degree of knowledge and who will have earned this knowledge through their direct experience. The reader is therefore placed in the position of listener. As such, the tone of the poem is one which contains both an openness and a strong sense of authority. The clarity of this tone it itself emphasized via the clarity of the image the ends the first sentence; the image of the crystal stair. The second line of the sentence appears to be completely self-contained and to function as a continuation of the initial address, and also as an anticipation of the refrain like nature of the line, to which Hughes will return at the end of the poem.

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The second sentence continues the mode of address and functions via a contrast to the image presented in the second line. Hughes writes: “It’s had tacks in it, / And splinters, / And boards torn up, / And paces with no carpet on the floor – / Bare” (ibid). A contrast is established here with the clarity and simplicity of the previous image. Hughes describes a fragmented and uncomfortable life, and this discomfort is emphasized by the abruptness of the lines and by their lack of specificity. The metaphor of an old and ricketty staircase with splinters and nails describes a life of discomfort, but it also describes something that is essentially fragmented. The images used in this sentence are all general, and no definite article is used throughout. As such, the impression is created that as the speaker looks back over their life, the dominant impression that is created is one of a continuous state of difficulty and struggle. There is seemingly little within the speaker’s life which can be fully grassed or fixed onto in a way which would enable the speaker to fully describe their experience. This fundamentally fragmentary experience is something which is further emphasized by the use of line breaks and the poem, which create an ever tightening sense of impressions and memories, but few definite memories.

During the next sentence, Hughes switches the emphasis of the poem from the speaker’s experience of the external world to their own internal motivation. It is this motivation and inner strength which is the focus of the next sentence: “But all the time / I’se ben a-climbin’ on, / And reachin’ lanndin’s, / An turnin corners, / And sometimes going’ in the dark / Where there ain’t been no light” (ibid). Again, the poem uses breaks in lines in order to generate a sense of cumulative experience. There is no particular event which is referenced, rather the general impression given is one of twisting and turning, and difficulty. Despite this difficulty, however, the voice of the speaker is clearly strong and is represented as being in subjective control of her own situation. The speaker moves from being passively acted upon by the troubles of life, to being the actively in charge of the twits and turns which she takes. In this way, the voice of the poem represents a life which actively involves the overcoming of adversity manifested by the capacity for a particular individual or subject to move within the boundaries set for them.

It is this strength which the speaker of the poem wishes to pass on to her son. The final sentences makes this clear. Hughes writes: “So boy, don’t you turn back. / Don’t you set down on the steps / ‘Cause you find it’s kind a hard. / Don’t you fall now – / For I’se still goin’, honey, / I’se still climbin, / And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (ibid). In these lines, the speaker passes on her strength to her son, but also does little to say that his life will be any easier than hers. Rather it is assumed that the objective nature of the world will be the same, and that he will face many challenges and difficulties throughout his life. The poem therefore encapsulates a collective history of struggle and difficulty, at the same time that it transits the subjective strength necessary to live within this history. Indeed, this is something emphasized by a switch from the past to the future tense. The metaphor of rising serves to show that this subjective struggle should be seen as a continuous process, both for those who have come before the speaker, and for those who will come after her. Passing on the strength necessary to live such struggle is the poem’s primary concern.

In conclusion, this paper has argued that Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son” is a poem that encapsulates a history of struggle, but also one of subjective strength. It is focused on the recollection of this struggle, together with the transmission of the subjective strength necessary to live in harsh and difficult objective conditions. It is this simultaneous representation of difficulty and the transmission of the strength necessary to live with it, that is the key aspect of the work.

  • Hughes, Langston. Mother to Son. N.D. Web. Accessed 10/18/2015. .

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