The Ballad of Rudolph Reed

by Gwendolyn Brooks

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The Poem

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“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 move, but Rudolph does not act until his daughter Mabel’s blood is “staining her gaze so pure”:

Then up did rise our Rudolph ReedAnd pressed the hand of his wife,And went to the door with a thirty-fourAnd a beastly butcher knife.

The conclusion is tragically predictable: Rudolph kills four white men before he himself is killed. The gathered neighbors kick “his corpse” and call him “Nigger.” The final stanza leaves readers without poetic resolution or catharsis:

Small Mabel whimpered all night long,For calling herself the cause.Her oak-eyed mother did no thingBut change the bloody gauze.

Rudolph’s revenge has only resulted in his own death; his surviving family exists in a tableau of guilt and blood. There is no redemption here for any of the characters—and yet the “oak-eyed” mother gives readers at least a small hope that the violence is finished and the Reeds will be able to stay in the house they have now earned with their own blood.

Forms and Devices

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There are a number of important poetic devices in this poem. Most noteworthy is the ballad form itself, which Brooks has taken from an ancient and popular tradition and which she uses in a fairly traditional way. The rhyme scheme in every stanza (abcb) is that of the ballad form, and the meter is also fairly regular; while line length varies, there are either three or four accented syllables to each line, usually in the typical ballad stanza of four beats to the first and third lines and three beats to the second and fourth lines. Variations on this pattern (as in the first line of stanza 1) are made for emphasis. In stanza 7, the irregularly accented third line captures the natural rhythms of the real estate agent’s voice, but the regularity of the surrounding three lines contains that variation to its one line:

The agent’s steep and steady stareCorroded to a grinWhy, you black old, tough old hell of a man,Move your family in!

Echoes of the older ballad form are also found in the archaic syntax or...

(This entire section contains 424 words.)

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word arrangement (“her gaze so pure,” “Then up did rise”). Brooks occasionally uses alliteration (“steep and steady stare,” “beastly butcher knife”) to help hold the various poetic elements together.

If the ballad form is fairly traditional, however, Brooks’s poetic diction is contemporary. While her language is quite simple and accessible—which is true to the narrative tradition of the ballad form, which often exhibits an almost childlike or fairy-tale quality—Brooks allows herself a number of figurative phrases (“yawning eye,” “silvery ring,” “fat rain,” “oak-eyed mother”). The most interesting metaphorical figure in the poem is the use of “oak” as a descriptive word. Rudolph, readers learn in the very first line, “was oaken./ His wife was oaken too./ And his two good girls and his good little man./ Oakened as they grew.” Several other times in the poem Brooks reminds readers that Rudolph is “oaken”; he is, in fact, as line 23 tells readers, “oakener/ Than others in the nation.” The word conveys not only a sense of color but also a feeling of strength and toughness, and Rudolph lives out that figurative description. Whatever hope readers have at the end of the poem comes from the fact that, in the penultimate line, Rudolph’s wife is now the “oak-eyed mother,” which implies that she has the strength to live through this tragedy. If Rudolph was “oakener” than others, perhaps his family has inherited that strength as part of his legacy to them.


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Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

Bryant, Jacqueline, ed. Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Maud Martha”: A Critical Collection. Chicago: Third World Press, 2002.

Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Lanker, Brian. I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989.

Madhubuti, Haki R., ed. Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks. Chicago: Third World Press, 1987.

Melhem, D. H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith, eds. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Washington, Mary Helen. “Plain, Black, and Decently Wild: The Heroic Possibilities of Maud Martha.” In The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983.

Wright, Stephen Caldwell, ed. On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.