Ballad of the Landlord

by Langston Hughes

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What poetic devices are used in "The Ballad of the Landlord"?

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Langston Hughes's "The Landlord" uses colloquial diction to help create a sense of place and person, with particular language constructs, such as "these steps is broken down," suggesting African American vernacular. This is a deliberate choice on the part of Hughes to support the idea that the poem represents the plight of many African Americans who are mistreated by their landlords. The poem, a "ballad," is, like many ballads, an expression of complaint, and is a poetic structure that has been associated with the songs and poetry of working class and disenfranchised groups.

The use of parallelism in the poem is in keeping with the ballad structure, but serves to emphasize the speaker's unhappiness with the situation as he repeats the phrase "Ten bucks" with increasing incredulity. "Ten bucks you say I owe you? / Ten bucks you say is due?" The structure helps us picture, and hear, the speaker's outrage rising to a crescendo before he utilizes the phrase in a parallel structure which pivots the function of the "ten bucks": "that's Ten Bucks more'n I'l pay you . . . "

The poem effectively functions as a dialogue between two characters, although for the most part, we only hear the speaker's part. The continued use of questions gives us an indication of what the landlord is "saying" in reply—"What? You gonna get eviction orders?" But for the most part, it is the voice of the "Negro" we hear, a clear reversal of the real world, in which it would be the voice of the landlord that carried the most weight. Sadly, the final two stanzas of the poem give us an indication of what would really happen if a black man were to stand up to his landlord in this way: the landlord has only to shout "Police!" and the newspaper headlines would read: "MAN THREATENS LANDLORD," with the speaker of the poem in jail.

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When examining the poetic devices used in Langston Hughes’ “The Ballad of the Landlord,” the form of the poem as a ballad is the first thing to be considered. Hughes writes the first six stanzas of the poem in ballad form consisting of a narrative which includes quatrains with a set rhyming pattern. In this case, the rhyming pattern is ABCB which provides a lyrical quality to the poem. As with most ballads, the speaker is an anonymous person representing a larger group. The narrator is speaking for all of the “Negro” tenants who were treated wrongfully by their landlords. His language is informal and realistic.

The final stanza written in ballad form is spoken by the landlord after he is threatened by the tenant, and includes the use of hyperbole or exaggeration as he says, “

He's trying to ruin the government

And overturn the land!

The tenant, although angry, is simply trying to obtain acceptable living conditions.

The last stanza of the poem deviates from this structure. The short, emphatic lines move the poem quickly to its end. The newspaper headline uses capital letters throughout which emphasizes its message and includes the word “Negro” to explain that the poem is speaking about the plight of African-Americans in Harlem during the 1930’s.

The tenant asks rhetorical questions of the landlord which another effective device. It is obvious that the tenant knows what his rent is but he asks questions. This is another way of emphasizing his message.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?

Ten Bucks you say is due?

Another device that Hughes employs is repetition. The word “landlord” is repeated as the tenant states his case about the deplorable conditions of the rented house. Langston Hughes effectively uses a variety of poetic devices throughout he poem to convey his message of social injustice.

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