The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Ballad of Rudolph Reed” employs a traditional verse form to tell a heroic and finally tragic story of human struggle against the contemporary forces of discrimination and hate. Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem is powerful and unrelenting in its cry for social justice, and it holds only a small hope for redemption for its characters. The story is told in sixteen ballad stanzas of regular structure, broken roughly into three sections. The first five stanzas describe the players in the drama and their dreams. In the first stanza, readers are introduced to the central character, Rudolph Reed, and his wife, two daughters, and son. The only thing Rudolph wants, readers learn in the second stanza, is a house, a house, stanzas 3 and 4 continue, that is not in a slum where “a man in bed” may “hear the roaches” but rather one that is “full of room.” Rudolph warns readers in stanza 5 that he will “fight” for such a house when he finds it.

In stanzas 6 through 10, Rudolph finds his dream dwelling and moves in “With his dark little wife,/ And his dark little children three.” The house is on a “street of bitter white” residents, but the Reeds are “too joyous to notice” the reactions (“a yawning eye/ That squeezed into a slit”) of their bigoted neighbors. In the final six stanzas, the tragedy waiting to befall the Reeds is acted out. Rocks are thrown through their windows, presumably by their white neighbors trying to force them to...

(The entire section is 414 words.)