What is some figurative language that is used in the Langston Hughes poem, "Mother to Son?"

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jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Mother" compares life to stairs, and contrasts her life (or stairs) against that of a "crystal stair," which, in this poem, becomes a symbol of luxury and ease. The smooth delicacy of crystal is contrasted with the rough textures that she has known in life:

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 --


"Tacks" and "splinters" indicate danger and pain. Torn boards signal dilapidation -- a sign of poverty -- while "places with no carpet" indicate discomfort. Notice the use of anaphora, or repetition, at the beginning of each line" with the continuous use of "and." Her suffering reads as a catalog which suddenly stops with the imagistic use of the word "bare." "Bare" refers literally to the absence of carpeting in this context, but also has connotative meaning: there was absence, perhaps also loneliness.

Nevertheless, she emphasizes the importance of persistence:

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.

She signals the shift from negative to positive with the use of "but." The dialect becomes starker here, signifying a lack of education and Southern origins. The poem may also address the migration of blacks from the South to Northern cities where their lives were easier, but still difficult. 

The use of anaphora reappears with the repetition of "and." In this case, the anaphora draws attention to the movement of progress.

The next lines address "Son" in an imperative tone:

So boy, don't you turn back.

Don't you set down on the steps

'Cause you finds its 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.

Again, she uses the metaphor of movement up a staircase to encourage her son's rightful direction in life. Setting down on the steps indicates giving up, while falling indicates making a move that misdirects one's progress, forcing one to start all over again.

Her use of the adverb "still" to modify "goin'" and "climbin'" indicates that age has not quelled her desire to have a better life. The second line of the poem is repeated at the end: "And life for me ain't been no crystal stair." Here, the line has a more positive meaning than it has on the first reading: it is less a description of hardship then of persistence and perseverance.