The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “Ballad of the Landlord,” Langston Hughes appropriates the traditional ballad form but uses it in a contemporary urban setting to relate a current and crushing social problem. This conjunction of traditional form and contemporary content lends further power to the poem’s cry for social justice. The poem contains nine ballad stanzas (although the strict stanzaic structure is abandoned in the last three) that, in traditional use of the form, would narrate a tale of a dramatic or romantic adventure. The story here, however, tells of protest and jail. In the opening five stanzas, the first-person narrator/tenant is talking to and complaining about a landlord who has not done the repairs that would justify paying the rent on his house. In the remaining four stanzas, readers are told of the terrible consequences of the narrator’s protest.

In the first stanza, the persona of the poem complains to the landlord (in direct address) about the leak in the roof that he first mentioned to him “Way last week.” The complaint in the second stanza is about the stairs that have not been fixed; the narrator is surprised that the landlord (who has apparently come by the narrator’s house to collect the rent) has not injured himself: “It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.” In the third stanza, the tenant refuses to pay the ten dollars the landlord is demanding until the landlord fixes “this house up new.” In the fourth stanza, the tenant repeats the...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The most important device in “Ballad of the Landlord” is the ballad form itself. Meant to recount a story, the popular ballad form often includes dialogue (as here) and employs a simple four-line stanza rhyming abcb. Readers must wonder why Hughes would use such a traditional form for such an untraditional topic and employ it for only two-thirds of the poem. Actually, the ballad form has been used for centuries, as it is here, as a vehicle of social protest, and it is significant that a number of other twentieth century African American poets have employed the form in a similar way: Gwendolyn Brooks, for example, in “The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” (1960), Robert Hayden in “A Ballad of Remembrance” (1966), and Dudley Randall in “Ballad of Birmingham” (1966). African American poets, in short, have often utilized the ballad form as a convenient way to convey their multiple messages of social protest.

Again, however, Hughes only uses the form for two-thirds of the poem and then violates it with two three-line stanzas of a harsh, fragmentary third-person description of what happens to the protesting tenant followed by the concluding three lines of newspaper headlines. (Notice that a continuing rhyme helps to tie these three short, final stanzas together: bell/cell, bail/jail.) The simple ballad form of the first six stanzas, which conveys the struggles of the tenant against his landlord, gives way to the staccato response of the...

(The entire section is 416 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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