In "Mother to Son," how does the language and free verse contribute to the author's purpose?

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In "Mother to Son," Langston Hughes's use of vernacular language and free verse allows the mother's voice to resonate vividly, adding authenticity to her story. Her life, symbolized by a difficult upward climb, contrasts with the "crystal stair" of the elite. Hughes's choice of free verse, lacking regular meter, emphasizes key words and mimics the mother's arduous journey, enhancing the poem's message and tone. The mother, serving as a model of resilience, inspires her son to persevere despite challenges.

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Langston Hughes's 1922 poem "Mother to Son" is presented as a monologue in the vernacular. The mother is plainspoken and her tone is both matter-of-fact and intimate because it is imperative that her son hear what she has to say about her life and his.

Her chosen phrase, "a crystal stair" is symbolic of the easy life that the elite lead. Their progress through life is pristine, perfect, and effortless. By way of contrast, the climb that the speaker has endured was full of painful obstacles she has managed to maneuver. The metaphor that she uses is an upward journey that is ultimately both realistic and hopeful.

Though her upward climb has been made difficult with "tacks...splinters" and torn up boards, she focuses on her progress as she has reached "landins" and turned "corners." She acknowledges that she has faced uncertainties symbolized by places "where there ain’t been no light." At this point in the poem she exhorts her son with imperatives delivered in a fierce and loving tone:"don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps." She presents herself as a model of continuing endurance with the words "I’se still goin’, honey, I’se still climbin’." Finally, she reminds him that for her, "life...ain’t been no crystal stair." By saying this, she implies that it will not be a "crystal stair" for him, either.

Hughes's choice of free verse complements the accessible language. To impose a formal structure would obstruct and contradict the poem's message and tone. The lack of meter and rhyme scheme allow the mother's observations and advice to sound uncontrived, completely authentic, and resonant.

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The use of language and free verse in this poem lets the mother's dialect and voice come through vividly. Her voice reaches us in an unmediated way. The poem therefore has the immediacy of direct address from the opening line on: "Well, son, I’ll tell you."

Free verse does not have a regular meter, and this allows Hughes to vary his line length to put the emphasis on certain words, such as "splinters" and "bare." The jagged rhythms mimic as well the mother's jagged climb up steps where she has to avoid missing boards, splinters, dark spots, and sharp corners.

Beyond dialect, the mother's central contrast is between her life climbing a tough set of stairs and the crystal stairway to heaven that Jacob dreamed he saw going up to heaven in the biblical book of Genesis. On this stairway, Jacob watched angels ascending and descending. The mother's life, she is saying, has not been that smooth, and her son's won't be either, because they are black people in America. Nevertheless, she advises her son never to give up.

Although the mother sees her life as rough, she functions as an angel to her son in her inspiration to him to keep climbing:

For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’
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In this poem, a mother seeks to encourage her son to persevere through life's difficulties. The purpose is to convey a simple truth: life is hard and you have to keep going. To this end, the speaker keeps her diction easy for her son to understand.

Mixed in with casual dialect are metaphors which aren't overly complex but do add depth to this mother's meaning:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

This almost seems an allusion to the classic Cinderella story where she loses her glass slipper on stairs just after midnight. For the mother, there has never been a fairy tale ending or a Prince Charming to rescue her. Instead, she has faced life's "tacks" and "splinters." These metaphors convey difficulty, and even young children could appreciate these examples of figurative language.

In addition to keeping casual language, the speaker also uses free verse. Life, with all of its troubles and hardships, is unpredictable. The form of the poem reinforces this idea. The reader never knows what can be found in the next line and finds no easy cadence in the meter. In fact, the shortest line in the poem is simply the word "bare," the powerful isolation of a single word conveying the complete emptiness felt in life from time to time.

The speaker's focus on her primary audience (her son) guides her use of language and form.

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The poem's language is simple and conversational, and the speaker's diction and word choices reinforce the message about how difficult life can be, especially for people who may not have much education or who haven't had certain advantages or certain kinds of privilege. The speaker uses words like "ain't" and truncates words (e.g., "reachin'" and "turnin'"). Instead of saying I am still going, she says, "I'se still goin', honey." This kind of language may tell us about her education level and help us to understand why her life may have been especially arduous and difficult; she's probably had to work even harder because of her lack of education and any judgement she might have endured from others as a result.

The free verse has much the same effect as the speaker's language. It feels informal and intimate, as opposed to the more rigid and patterned sound associated with regular meter. I also think it makes us pay even greater attention to the words used, because there is no regular meter to distract us.

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"Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes is narrated by a mother who is advising her son about life's challenges. She shares her hard times and setbacks and encourages her son to continue climbing and moving forward. The use of language and dialect is intended to represent the mother's true voice as she encourages her son to persevere. Hughes uses a metaphor in comparing the staircase mentioned by the mother to the struggles the mother endures. The imagery of "tacks" and "splinters" in the poem create a picture in the reader's mind of the obstacles faced by the mother. Although life has not been easy, she perseveres in her journey and hopes her son will do the same. By using free verse, Hughes allows the mother's voice to be heard as natural, conversational speech.

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How does the poem's use of language and free verse contribute to the author's purpose in "Mother to Son"?

In "Mother to Son," Langston Hughes gives a message of encouragement to black Americans struggling against poverty and racial injustice. The language of the poem and the free verse format contribute to the message by creating a dramatic monologue. The words chosen and the sentence structure create a believable pep talk that a black mother might have given to her son in 1922 (when the poem was written) or even today.

Hughes uses dialect to create a realistic form of expression in lines 9, 18, and 19. The use of "I'se" for "I have" makes the tone folksy and helps the reader picture the black woman speaker. The speaker often drops the g's on -ing words, consistent with the pronunciation used by her ethnic group. Likewise, the words ain't and kinder contribute to the monologue's effect.

The poem speaks of a circuitous climb to a better quality of life. The mother describes her efforts toward advancement as a stairway that is in bad condition. She has had to step over rough areas; she has stopped at landings, turned around, and groped in the dark. The uneven lines of the free verse reinforce this feeling of a difficult and faltering journey. Some lines have only one or two words, while others are quite long, suggesting times when she was cut short in reaching an intermediate goal or had a spell of relatively unhindered success.

The free verse not only reinforces the realism of the mother's monologue since it simulates the rhythms of regular speech, but it also supports the meaning of the poem by visually paralleling the fits and starts of the mother's progress through life.

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