By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Langston Hughes (1901-67) was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920s. Over the course of a varied career he was a novelist, playwright, social activist, and journalist, but it is for his poetry that Hughes is now best-remembered.
‘Mother to Son’ is one of Hughes’ best-known poems, and sees a mother addressing her son, telling him about how hard and challenging her life has been, and offering him some parental advice. You can read ‘Mother to Son’ here (it takes no longer than a minute to read); below, we offer an analysis of the poem’s meaning and symbolism.
‘Mother to Son’: summary
The mother addresses her son directly, telling him that her life hasn’t been an easy or luxurious progression or climb. There have been plenty of stumbling-blocks and obstacles, which she likens to tacks, splinters of wood, or torn-up floorboards, and sometimes the wooden stairs she has trodden have been uncarpeted and bare.
She is using the image of a stair as a metaphor for her life, of course, so the image of the bare stairs suggests financial hardship where life has been stripped back to the bare necessities required for living.
Despite these setbacks, the mother tells her son that she has continued to climb, every now and then reaching a landing (where she can pause for breath) and turning a corner (much as we talk of ‘turning a corner’ in our life, when things get better), and sometimes having to walk on in the dark – something which increases the dangers, and involves making one’s way blind, not knowing what’s coming next.
At this point, the mother moves from describing her experiences to instructing her son, telling him not to turn back but to carry on and keep going, no matter how tough things might get. He shouldn’t just sit down on the steps and give up because to carry on climbing is hard-going. He shouldn’t let himself fall; after all, his mother is still walking on, still climbing the stairs of life, and things haven’t exactly been easy for her.
‘Mother to Son’: analysis
‘Mother to Son’ uses the extended metaphor of a stairwell to depict the struggles and hardships of life, and in particular, the struggles faced by an African-American mother in early twentieth-century America. The image of the stairs enables Hughes to convey not only the difficulty of persevering when things get tough, but also the idea of social climbing, or ascending the social ladder in terms of class, wealth, and cultural acceptance.
The mother begins by defining her life as a negative: by what it is not. Her rejection of a crystal stair in the poem’s second and final lines neatly captures the lack of luxury: for many working-class African-American families, life was about making ends meet and ensuring there was enough food on the table, rather than opulence and expense. Instead, the stairs walked by the mother in Hughes’ poem are rough, dangerous (those splinters), and even, at times, bare, suggesting – as remarked above – that financial times have sometimes been hard in the mother’s past.
‘Mother to Son’ is written in free verse: unrhymed poetry without a regular rhythm or metre, and with irregular line lengths. Indeed, one line of Hughes’ poem is just one word: ‘Bare’ (appropriately enough). Hughes often wrote in free verse rather than established forms, and his looser and more free-flowing rhythms are more influenced by improvised jazz music than by iambic pentameter.
And in the case of ‘Mother to Son’, a poem spoken by a mother to her son in African-American Vernacular English (note the use of double negatives and contractions such as ‘I’se’), free verse is an appropriate vehicle for the mother’s advice to her son.
But as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and others have pointed out, free verse worthy of the name of ‘poetry’ or ‘art’ isn’t ‘free’ altogether: it cannot be completely free from formal constraints if it is to be considered poetry at all. Robert Frost’s famous disparaging of free verse as ‘playing tennis with the net down’ reminds us that even free verse which doesn’t utilise a rhyme scheme or a regular metre needs to reveal the artful control of the poet.
And although there’s no rhyme scheme in ‘Mother to Son’, there is evidence of formal constraint: note how ‘stair’ is repeated at the ends of two lines, near the beginning of the poem and then again right at the end. In between these two lines which more or less bookend the poem, we find the rhyme ‘Bare’ (which, appropriately enough, relates to the uncarpeted stair), ‘steps’ (which is a semantic rhyme for ‘stair’, because it shares the same meaning), ‘climbin’’ (more semantic rhyme, since stairs are climbed), and ‘floor’ (related to ‘stair’ in meaning, but also an example of pararhyme or consonance).
All of these semantic and phonetic features reveal the careful control behind the verse lines, but Hughes has concealed them well so as to preserve the natural, colloquial rhythms of the mother’s address to her son. ‘Mother to Son’ artfully conceals its art, we might say, and appears artless, offhand, and conversational, to convey the idea of a mother intimately talking to her son.
Of course, we should bear in mind the gender of the speaker as well as her ethnicity. Hughes’ mother has faced double the prejudice and discrimination than her son will face, because she is a woman. When she turns to her son (‘So boy …’), there is arguably a tacit recognition of the fact that she has faced even more obstacles, and if she can keep going, he will be able to.
All of this is a critique of the American Dream: that notion that anyone, regardless of their background, can achieve greatness and prosperity in the United States, the ‘land of the free’. We know that not everyone can achieve that dream, but we also know that it will be harder for some than for others.
If the mother’s image of the crystal stair suggests a shimmering and bright path of upward mobility, which the walker need only follow, her later reference to the ‘dark’ and ‘no light’ (another example of semantic rhyme) undercuts the shining brilliance of such a fantastical ideal.