Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1151
The simple, straightforward title of the poem “Mother to Son,” by the African-American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967), clearly identifies both the speaker of the work and the person to whom her words are addressed. The very first line of the poem is typical of the rest of the work in its use of phrasing that is colloquial—that is, in this case, phrasing that implies one person speaking to another. Yet the phrasing is also colloquial in the sense that it is ordinary, unpretentious, and informal. By beginning with the word “Well,” the mother sounds as if she is responding to a question from her son, while the use of the generic word “son” sounds (ironically) more affectionate than if she had used the son’s proper name. By using the word “son,” the mother also makes their relationship seem universal and archetypal—as if this might be any mother speaking to any son. (The effect would be significantly different, for instance, if the poem had begun “Well, Richard,” or “Well, Langston.”) As presently written, the opening line implies the close, loving relationship between almost any parent and his or her child.
The second line continues the emphasis on colloquial phrasing. The word “ain’t,” for instance, is clearly informal and unpretentious, implying either that the speaker has not been educated in a conventional way or that she is unconcerned with the niceties of formal education. The fact that the second line is almost twice as long as the first (nine syllables versus five) suggests that the poem will not have a rigid, prepackaged formal structure, and indeed a glance at the shape of the poem as it moves down the page suggests that it follows no preplanned, predictable scheme, either in meter or in rhyme. Part of Hughes’s talent as a poet involves his ability to mimic the rhythms and diction of actual speech, and clearly that talent is on display in this particular poem.
The phrase “crystal stair” is intriguing. It can be found in a variety of texts from the nineteenth century, some religious and some secular, and it is often used to suggest the glorious connection or procession from earth to heaven. A “crystal” stair implies a stairway that is special, unusual, beautiful, finely wrought, and symbolic of wealth. However, the speaker’s stair, or movement through life, has been associated with few of these traits. Instead, it has been actually or potentially painful, brimming with “tacks,” “splinters,” and “boards torn up” (3-5)—details suggesting that the speaker’s social position also places her at or near the bottom of the economic ladder. The places she has inhabited, or where she has worked, have not been beautiful or associated with wealth or comfort (“no carpet on the floor” ). Instead, they have been plain and “Bare,” an adjective that receives emphatic stress by being the only word in line 7. Nowhere else in this poem does Hughes give such singular emphasis to just one word. The word “Bare” implies something naked, unadorned, unfurnished, barren, or even vulnerable. It is entirely appropriate that this is the word that finds itself all alone in a single line.
No sooner does the poem dwindle down to a single word, however, than it begins to expand in line 8. If the poem had ended with line 7, its tone might have seemed self-pitying and maudlin. Instead, the tone from lines 8-13 becomes one of active resolution, with a strong metrical stress on verbs. Whereas the first seven lines had used mostly drab, abstract verbs (“tell,” “been,” and “had”), with only one vivid but violent verb-phrase (“torn up”), lines 8-13 use strong, assertive verbs: “a-climbin’,” “reachin’,” “turnin’,” and “goin’.” The key syllables in these verbs are emphasized by the poem’s meter. Thus, the second part of the poem is more active than the first part. Lines 1-7 had described a condition and lifestyle; lines 8-13 almost reenact, through the vigor of their phrasing, a slow, hard, but steady ascent in spite of challenges and obstacles. The mother has at times been both literally and figuratively in the dark, but her movement onward and upward becomes the source of moral and spiritual illumination for her son and in this poem.
In the poem’s next phase, beginning with line 14, the mother uses her own experiences and struggles as the source of her authority and confidence in counseling her son. The tone of these lines is interestingly ambiguous. On one hand, the tone is gentle and encouraging; on the other hand, the tone is assertive and challenging, as if the mother means to say, “if I’ve worked hard, you have no excuse for not working hard yourself.” Both tones are probably present, creating a mingled attitude of concern, encouragement, and challenge. Similar ambiguity and complexity are present in the phrase “kinder hard” (16), where the first word can initially seem consoling and positive until we realize that “kinder” is just the dialect form of “kind of.” Thus, just when a slightly cheerful note has entered the poem through the word “kinder,” that note instantly disappears with the entrance of the word “hard.”
Finally, in the concluding section of the poem (lines 18-20), the speaker mostly turns her attention from her son and back to herself. In line 18, the word “honey” is unambiguously affectionate. Although the mother is addressing a son who seems old enough that he is facing adult responsibilities, she still thinks of him, lovingly, as her child. She addresses him using a word—“honey”—that she probably used often when he was just a boy. In this section of the lyric, more positive, assertive verbs (“goin’,” “climbin’”) once again appear, thus linking the conclusion of the poem with lines 8-13. At this point we realize that the entire poem is built around an extended metaphor (or “conceit”), in which the movement through life is compared to climbing a stairway. Hughes uses this “conceit” very effectively, partly by keeping the poem rather short. If the comparison had been extended over another ten or twenty lines, it might have appeared labored and artificial. Instead, Hughes keeps the use of the “conceit” entirely credible. We can easily imagine a real mother using such language to a real son. The poem in no way sounds “literary” or “mannered.” The final line gives the work a kind of polished symmetry and balance (since line 20 explicitly echoes line 2), but the effect is completely in keeping with the tone of the whole poem and with the nature of this particular speaker. The repetition seems not the product of artistic finesse (although that is, in part, precisely what it is); rather, it is mainly a final, emphatic comment issuing from the mother’s mind and heart. Appropriately enough, the very last word of the poem—“stair”—emphasizes the work’s central “conceit.” We are left with a final image of upward movement.