Comparing and Contrasting Hughes's Mother to Son and Wilbur's The Writer
Whether life is a steep climb up a shaky stairway or a challenging voyage over rough seas, a parent hopes a child will persevere to the end. In Langston Hughes's poem "Mother to Son" and in Richard Wilbur's poem "The Writer," the poets use the voice of a parent considering a child's future, and both use imagery of struggle and survival to suggest what lies ahead for the child. Although the point of view, context, and language of the two poems differ significantly, the message is the same: a parent wants a good life for his or her child, but knows that many obstacles can block the way.
While Hughes and Wilbur share a similar message in their poems, their points of view are very different. Hughes uses a first-person narrator, a mother speaking directly to her son. The title of the poem itself, "Mother to Son," states this point of view. The reader is listening in on a one-on-one conversation. The opening line introduces the mother's monologue: "Well, son, I'll tell you." The point of view stays consistent as the mother describes what life's stairway has been like for her: "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair" (2 and 20), and urges her son to do as she has done: "I'se still climbin'" (19). She addresses her son directly throughout the poem, calling him "son" (1), "boy" (14), and "honey" (18). The poem is entirely in the mother's speaking voice, with the informalities of someone speaking privately to a close relative and the grammatical errors of someone who is probably not well educated.
Richard Wilbur's poem is also written in the first person, but the narrator does not address his daughter directly until the final stanza (31-33). The first thirty lines of the poem are addressed to the reader, as the narrator describes two scenes that take place in the family's house. One scene is taking place now: "My daughter is writing a story" (3), and one scene took place in the past: "I remember..." (16) "two years ago" (17). Because the narrator is addressing the reader instead of his daughter herself, most of Wilbur's poem seems less immediate than Hughes's does. The title of Wilbur's poem, "The Writer," sets some distance between the narrator and his daughter. This is not "Father to Daughter." Writing about someone is at least one step removed from talking to someone. There are three levels to Wilbur's poem that reflect three writers: the daughter who is writing a poem, the father who is observing her, and Wilbur himself who is writing about the two of them. The narrator's voice is the formal voice of a writer, especially one who is well educated. The narrator uses a less familiar vocabulary, with nautical terms such as "prow" (1) and "gunwale" (6). The narrator also uses non-conversational sentence structure, for example, "Young as she is, the stuff of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy" (7-8). Only in the final stanza does the narrator address his...