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...

(The entire section is 525 words.)