This is a popular piece of poetry composed by Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance. ‘The Ballad of the Landlord’ was inspired by his life in New York City as a black man dealing with inherent racism and trying to avoid being exploited by his white landlord.
Explore The Ballad of the Landlord
‘The Ballad of the Landlord’ by Langston Hughes is a memorable piece about racism in New York during the 1940s.
In the first lines of ‘The Ballad of the Landlord,’ the speaker begins by talking to his landlord. The second stanza also begins in the same way. He tells the man that his roof is leaking and that someone really needs to come to make repairs. He’s already reported this issue once, but nothing was done to remedy the problem. The front steps are also broken, he says, yet another problem that hasn’t been addressed.
The landlord wants the speaker to pay him money without any of the repairs having been completed. This is something the speaker disagrees with. He knows that there’s a possibility that the landlord is going to continue to make life hard for him. Perhaps by turning off the heat. The landlord gets angry and calls the police, suggesting that the black tenant is threatening him. The speaker is arrested and taken to a police station. There, he’s held in jail without bail. He’s sentenced to 90 days for requesting that the landlord do his job.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages primarily with the theme of racism. The speaker, a black tenant, is well aware of the racism inherent in his society and isn’t exactly surprised when nothing is getting done in the way of repairs to his home. The white landlord, who knows he’s in a position of power concerning his job and the control his skin color gives him, exploits the black tenant.
He tries to make more money off of him and refuses to do the repairs that are needed. Finally, the white landlord calls the police, and the speaker is sent to prison. The speaker’s imprisonment seemingly comes out of nowhere and, considering the content of the poem, is undeserved.
Readers might also note the tone the speaker takes when he’s talking to his landlord. He doesn’t initially get angry or express his frustrations. He’s deferential, suggesting the repair to the stairs is for the landlord’s own safety.
Structure and Form
‘The Ballad of the Landlord’ by Langston Hughes is a nine-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first six stanzas all contain four lines, making them quatrains. The final stanzas are quite different, though. They are three tercets or sets of three lines. The first six stanzas follow the traditional rhyme scheme of a ballad. Meaning they rhyme ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The final tercets contain a few examples of rhyme, like “bell” and “cell” and “BAIL” and “JAIL,” but do not follow a specific structured pattern.
Hughes did not use one consistent metrical pattern when he composed this poem. But, readers should note the use of iambs. For example, line two reads: “My roof has sprung a leak.” It is written entirely in iambs or pairs of syllables, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. The third stanza is almost a perfect representative of ballad meter or alternate lines of iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter. But, this pattern does not last throughout the poem.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Repetition: seen through the use of a refrain, “Landlord, landlord” in the first stanzas, as well as examples of anaphora. The latter can be seen with the use of “Ten Bucks you say” in stanza three and “You gonna” in stanza four.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Way” and “week” in the fourth line of stanza one and “Landlord, landlord.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and lines three and four of the third stanza.
Stanzas One and Two
My roof has sprung a leak.
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.
In the first stanzas of ‘The Ballad of the Landlord,’ the speaker, a black tenant, begins by addressing his landlord, a white man. He asks, politely, if the landlord remembers him informing him about a leak in the roof. He mentioned it a week ago, and nothing has been done to resolve the problem. He also tells the man that the “steps is broken down.” This is something, he warns, may end up being dangerous for the landlord himself. It’s a wonder. The speaker adds, “you don’t fall down.”
Readers might take the shambolic nature of the apartment as a symbol in and of itself. It represents the world that the Black tenant is forced to live in and endure. It’s in a state that others don’t have to deal with.
Stanzas Three and Four
Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?
The landlord responds to the tenant between the two stanzas. It appears the landlord told the tenant that he owes him “Ten Bucks.” This is something that immediately angers the tenant. He shouldn’t have to pay anything, especially if repairs aren’t being done. He starts to ask rhetorical questions, considering whether the landlord might threaten him with other loss, like his heat and furniture. Perhaps the landlord is willing to slowly dismantle the tenant’s life. It’s clear through the constant use of questions in these lines that the tenant is quite angry about his situation.
Stanzas Five and Six
Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!
The next two stanzas, which are the final quatrains, are from the landlord’s perspective. He utilizes his position of power as a white man to call the police and have the tenant arrested for “trying to ruin the government / And overturn the land!” This hyperbolic explanation is an important part of the poem. If the Black man steps out of his role as a submissive tenant and questions the rule of the white landlord, then the “balance” of society is in danger, the speaker suggests. The landlord knows that he take advantage of society’s fear of this kind of shift and utilize it to get the Black man out of his hair.
Stanzas Seven, Eight, and Nine
JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL!
The final threes stanzas are tercets. This means that they contain three lines. They explain what happened next in short, concise sentences. The Black man is thrown in prison and given “90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL.” This is a clearly outrageous sentence considering the fact that the tenant did nothing other than asking for repairs and question the landlord’s intentions.
‘The Ballad of the Landlord’ is a ballad. It loosely follows the rules of a ballad. Some stanzas use alternating iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter, and they all follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB, except for the tercets.
The main speaker is unnamed in ‘The Ballad of the Landlord.’ He is clearly a Black man, a tenant in an apartment or housing complex run by a white landlord. He’s submissive at first, gently questioning, and then he expresses his anger over his mistreatment in the middle of the poem.
This poem was published in 1940 in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance.
The poem was likely meant to take place in New York City during the 1930s-1940s. Hughes was often inspired by his own experiences in the city when writing his poetry.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Ballad of the Landlord’ should also consider reading some of Langston Hughes’ other best-known poems. For example:
- ‘Beale Street Love’ – a short, powerful poem that speaks on the nature of love on Beale Street, an African American cultural hub.
- ‘Dreams’ – is about the importance of never letting dreams go.
- ‘Song For a Dark Girl’ – a darkly depressing poem that depicts the death of a young black man and his lover’s heartbreak.