Describe the irony of the situation in the poem. How effectively do you see the form of the poem as heightening its meaning? For example, in the poem “Ballad of Birmingham,” written in 1969, Dudley Randall chooses to tell the story of the war in Birmingham, Alabama, through the eyes of a mother and her child. He chose to tell their story in the form of a ballad, as ballads are poems that can tell a story. A ballad also has a fixed rhythm and rhyme, which makes it useful when telling a story and easier to understand and remember.
The first opening stanzas of the ballad is a speech between the mother and her young daughter. From the first four stanzas, we find out that the child wants to go out and ‘march the streets of Birmingham’ rather than go out to play with her friends. This can show how important the freedom march is to her and how the war has led to children to be more committed to their countries than the adults as the mother forbids her to go whilst the young child tells her mother that she won’t be alone as ‘other children will go with me.’
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It is somehow ironic that a young child would be more concerned about her country’s freedom than her mother, an adult. It is even more surprising that children would be going to the freedom march ‘to make our [their] country free’ and the adults don’t. This can show that the children are more committed to changing their country for the better and at least attempting to change their own futures. Throughout the speech, the daughter is trying to persuade her mother to let her go out and march the streets of Birmingham. The mother repeats, ‘No, baby, no, you may not go.’ Still, she finally gives in and lets her, saying that ‘you may go to church instead’ meaning she will let her child go but not to the freedom march as she thinks that the church, a religious and holy place, would not be a place where there would be bombings and danger.
Ironically, she lets her child out after saying ‘no, you may not go’ twice. Ironically, the church also gets bombed and not the freedom march where the child originally wanted to go. Randall could show that you have to fight for your right and for what you believe instead of waiting for it to just happen by itself. Randall also gives us a lot of detail when he describes how the young girl looked like when she left her mother. He uses a whole stanza to tell us about the contrast between her clothes and her skin and hair. He tells us that she had ‘night-dark hair… brown hands’ while ‘white gloves… and white shoes’. The fact that her attire is white could show her innocence as a child even though she lives in a place where there is constant war.
Her dark skin tone could reflect the darkness of the war that she lives in, and the contrast shows that she can still stay pure and innocent in a place of darkness. Later on in the ballad, the mother lets her child go to church and ‘smiled to know her child was in the sacred place’ as the church was the safest place that she could think of for her child. She doesn’t believe that anything bad would happen to her daughter in such a religious place, but in the same stanza, Randall tells us that ‘that smile was the last smile to come upon her face’ due to an explosion that no one could have foreseen hitting the church. Once she heard the explosion, she could already picture the havoc and the chaos.
She knows, maybe due to her sixth sense as a mother, that something dreadful has happened to her daughter, which is why her eyes ‘grew wet and wild’ as she ‘raced through the streets of Birmingham Calling for her child.’ She is calling for her daughter in the hopes of hearing a reply, something to calm her from her shock. She is desperate to get to the church, panicking that her worst nightmare may come true. The way Randall tells us that she let her daughter out thinking it would be safe in church and how the smile she gave her daughter was the last smile she would ever make creates a huge contrast. This juxtaposition emphasizes how, in a war, something can change your life in less than a second and that everything you do, no matter how small, may be the very last thing you’d ever do.
It shows how fragile human life is and that we shouldn’t take everything for granted. In the final stanza, Randall doesn’t tell us how bad the explosion damaged its surroundings. Still, he tells us that the mother had to claw through ‘bits of glass and brick,’ which could suggest that the explosion was very close to the church or aimed at the church, which resulted in the church collapsing and that she was searching for her daughter in the ruins that were once the church. Randall then introduces speech again when the mother finds the shoe her young daughter was wearing to church. In the last line, where the mother says, ‘But, baby, where are you?’ the speech hits us with a wave of emotion as we already know the answer to this rhetorical question.
The fact that the mother only found the shoe could also suggest that the force of the explosion had affected her child hugely and that it may have disassembled her, leading to her death. This thought makes us think of how war and all its conflict could be stopped and how war destroys people’s lives in a second. By using a ballad to tell the story of this mother and her child, Randall makes us use our imagination throughout the course of reading his poem. This makes the ballad much more effective as everyone’s imagination is different, and this poem hits us differently on an emotional level.