What are the sound devices and the figures of speech in the poem "Mother to Son"?

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beateach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Langston Hughes uses a number of sound devices and figures of speech in the poem “Mother to Son.”

The poem is metaphor for life, which Hughes describes as a “crystal stair.” A mother speaks to her son about the difficulties she has endured in her life using the voice and dialect of an African American woman living in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance.

Upon examining the first stanza, examples of a form of alliteration, consonance, are found in line 1. Hughes repeats the l sound with the words, well, I’ll, and tell. This begins the poem on a lyrical note. The word And is repeated at the beginnings of lines 4, 5, and 6, as the mother emphasizes the tribulations she faced in life. This literary device is called anaphora. Lines 6 and 7 are an example of enjambment where one line flows into the next taking the thought with it.

Again in the second stanza, Hughes uses consonance with the in sound in the words climbin’, landin’s, turnin’, and goin’. The use of anaphora continues with the word and at the beginning of lines 10, 11, and 12.

In both the second and third stanzas, Hughes repeats the mother’s use of the slang contraction I’se instead of using the words I am. This use of repetition adds authenticity to the mother’s character.

Throughout the poem, there are examples of visual imagery that add to the metaphor of the “crystal stair.” The mother profoundly explains how she continues to rise out of her difficult Harlem life. It has not been easy, with stops and starts, and sometimes feeling like there is no hope, but still, she continues to encourage her son to push onward, not to give up in despair.

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.

cneukam1379 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This poem by Langston Hughes is another of his poems where he takes on the persona of a character that is unlike his own.  Here, he is an African-American mother talking directly to her son; thus, the unique voice in this poem is what pops out to the reader immediately. Specifically, the unique dialect, which is present in lines 9-13:

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.
Some may say that this dialect indicates that the mother is "uneducated," but what she speaks of in this poem is far more meaningful and wise than the teachings she'd receive from any formal education. The mother speaks metaphorically of a "crystal stair": 
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. (3-7)
But even though life has not been easy for her, she tells her son that she has continued to climb.  Her advice to her son is to keep pushing on even when life throws obstacles in his way.
 
Even more, this poem can be seen as advice to all African Americans in this time period, the Harlem Renaissance. Even though laws had changed and they were no longer slaves, there was still rampant racism and segregation. Through these tough times, Hughes is reminding his audience to continue pushing upward and onward, no matter if life has not given them a "crystal stair."