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Analysis of the Poem "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Poem Summary and Discussion

"Mother to Son" is a short poem and an extended metaphor in which a mother advises her son to always keep climbing and not to "set down on the steps" despite her also saying "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair."

The metaphor for life then is a staircase, stairs or a set of steps that have to be ascended just like the rungs on a ladder. The mother's perspective is based on long experience—there have been no crystal stairs for her.

This image could also be an allusion to the Bible story of Jacob, who dreamed of a stairway (or ladder) going up to Heaven. This story can be found in the book of Genesis 28:12–15.

The idea of crystal stairs stems from the world of fairy tales. Picture the ideal princess sweeping down from a tower in glittery slippers, tripping lightly on each see-through crystal glass step as she prepares to meet her perfect prince.

Langston Hughes decided to use dialect language for what is essentially the mother's monologue. Some think this stereotypes the mother as the traditional poor, black, aspiring parent wanting the best for her son, slightly desperate and down at heel, in a pinafore and headscarf, cleaning as she advises.

Others believe the dialect form to be a powerful and natural choice. If the words are from the heart of a local poor woman, why not use them for the whole poem? The message is clear and genuine, and the advice heartfelt and positive.

"Mother to Son" was first published in the magazine Crisis in December of 1922. This magazine was the voice of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NCAA), and the young Hughes was a regular contributor.

Hughes led an adventurous life, writing novels, short stories and plays as well as essays and poetry, the latter influenced by the rhythms in jazz and blues music. He didn't flinch from writing on topical issues of the day either (the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings, for example).

He went to Spain as a correspondent to experience firsthand the world-changing Spanish Civil war (1936–39) and wrote "Letter from Spain" as well as other pieces, giving a unique angle on the war by writing as a fictional black soldier, something that had never been done before.

"Mother to Son" gives subtle insight into the wishes of an ordinary mum for the future of her boy. Never give up, she says, and do not stop climbing and achieving. Follow my example.

"Mother to Son"

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor --
Bare.
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you finds it's kinder 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.

Line-by-Line Commentary and Analysis

"Mother to Son" is a single-stanza poem of 20 lines. Most are short (one is only a single word), and they constitute a monologue, like a series of lines from a play spoken by the same character.

The basic message is that life isn't an easy trip, and steps taken can be full of peril that might set you back, but you have to carry on no matter what—just like me, your mother.

Lines 1–2

The opening two lines reflect someone who is telling a plain truth to her son. Here is an honest person laying it on the line in the form of a neat metaphor—a set of stairs. For this person, these are not crystal stairs but something else. If they had been made of crystal, well . . . life would've been so different.

Crystal stairs conjure up images of a fairy tale staircase set in some grand palace or castle. On them would be a wealthy, glamorous princess—a privileged person with an advantaged background. The person in the poem is far away from this scenario.

Lines 3–7

The mother explains that her staircase had tacks (thin nails) and splinters in it, the boards were torn and the carpet was non-existent. In fact, the floor was bare wood. Here we have the opposite to the crystal stair. Here is poverty, deprivation and basic living.

That seventh line is stark and cold . . . Bare. Note the anaphora—the repeated And . . . And—which reinforces the idea of hardship.

Lines 8–13

The change comes in lines eight and nine when the mother tells the son that despite a rough life, she's not giving up hope; she's been "a-climbin' on . . ." The dialect language beginning to assert its power.

Note also the enjambment between lines eight and nine. Line eight is unpunctuated so the sense carries on and there's no real pause for the reader. It adds weight.

She's reached "landin's," turned corners and made progress even in the dark when she's felt depressed and life was frightening because she didn't have a clue if she'd get out of that darkness.

Line 14

This is perhaps the most important line of the poem. The mother gives direct advice to help prevent the boy from giving up. Her son was maybe thinking of going back down the stairs, giving up on the ground he's made and being afraid of aiming high.

It's as if the son has asked a question before the first line, or given a hint that he was thinking of packing it all in. He's been weakened by circumstance.

Lines 15–20

She underlines this basic message by telling him not to sit down, not to be passive, not to be apathetic and not to give in because things have gotten a bit harder or tougher. He's in danger of not only going backward but of falling off the staircase—that sounds serious.

She sweetens him up a bit, calls him honey and tells him she loves him; she's desperate for him to do well and to climb on up because she's had it so rough on those tacky, splintery bare boards. Even so, she will not give in, so he must not.

Sources

  • www.poetryfoundation.org
  • Black Poets of the United States, Jean Wagner, Uni of Illinois,1973
  • www.poets.org

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 Andrew Spacey