Study Guide

Ballad of Birmingham Form and Meter

By Dudley Randall

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Form and Meter

Simple Sing-Song

Though it may seem simple, there's still a form to Randall's ballad. Don't fret, though, Shmoopers. We're here to break it all down for you, beginning with the stanzas.

Hop on the Quatrain Train

A stanza is just a group of lines formed into a unit (usually separated from other stanzas by spacing). Think of it as a poetic paragraph. And if you check out this poem, you'll notice that each stanza has four lines. Now, in the poetry world, four-line stanzas are called quatrains, so we can say that there are eight quatrains in all here. Got it?

Rhymin' and Schemin'

Now, these quatrains all have a consistent rhyme scheme: ABCB, where each letter stands for that line's end rhyme. Check it out:

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair, A
And bathed rose petal sweet, B
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands, C
And white shoes on her feet. B

The last word in lines 2 and 4 (in this case, "sweet" and "feet") rhyme, although lines 1 and 3 do not. If you check the other stanzas, you'll see that this patter is consistent throughout. Therefore, the poem is written in rhyming quatrains. Remember, we're dealing with a ballad form here. Ballads often have a simple and consistent rhyme scheme.

Form of: a Ballad

Ballads also follow a consistent beat pattern. We (and other folks) like to call this rhythm a "ballad meter." If you listen to the sound of the lines, you'll notice a certain repetition of the stressed and unstressed lines, something like:


For example, check out the meter in the following two lines:

And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.

Each daDUM is a beat unit (or, in the poetry world, a foot). There are all different types of feet; a foot with one unstressed (da) and one stressed (DUM) syllable is called an iamb. Since the first line has four iambs, we say that line is written in "iambic tetrameter" (tetra- means four). And since the second line has three iambs, we call that pattern "iambic trimeter" (tri- meaning three).

Randall occasionally deviates from the traditional ballad form in the poem (just to keep it interesting), but this iambic tetrameter-iambic trimeter is generally the rule he follows, which is why this poem is still considered to be a ballad.

But why choose this form in the first place? We think the ballad form serves a couple of Randall's purposes, actually. Purpose 1: it's relatively easy to follow. The lines are short, the rhymes and rhythms are consistent, and the form is not at all intimidating. In fact, it sticks in your head without any obstacles between you and the horror of the poem's actual content. This leads us to Purpose 2: a ballad is traditionally a popular form. It was easily memorized and easily put to music. Therefore, it traveled easily from person to person. Randall's not just writing this poem for himself. He's out to expose this horror to anyone who will read his work. And it worked, too; this poem was translated into song and reproduced widely.

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