English Literature


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Discovering the Rich and Diverse History of Ballads

When we hear the word 'ballad', we may instantly think of a heartfelt acoustic love song or a classic 80s power ballad. But the true meaning of ballads as a poetic form dates back centuries and continues to influence modern music today. Originating in Europe in the 14th century, ballads have played a significant role in popular poetry for centuries.

The Origins of Ballads

The term 'ballad' comes from the Old French word 'balade', meaning a song for dancing. It can be traced back even further to the Latin 'ballare', which translates to 'to dance'.

The earliest form of ballads were traditional or folk ballads, typically performed in rural communities. These were popularized by wandering minstrels who incorporated local legends into their shows. Over time, literary ballads were developed, which were written versions of traditional ballads that captured their essence.

Common Themes in Ballads

Ballads often take the form of narrative poems, using vivid imagery to express their themes. Some recurring themes in ballads include the supernatural, tragic romance, ancient legends, life and death, religion, love stories, and archetypal tales.

Archetypal stories are narratives that follow well-known patterns. They are often considered the original tales from which other versions are based.

The Structure of Ballads

Ballads are typically formal poems that follow a set meter and rhyme scheme. However, modern variations have introduced some variation to the traditional form. Let's take a closer look at the different forms and variations of ballads based on their meter and rhyme scheme.

It's important to note that the diverse nature of ballads makes it challenging to identify them based solely on their meter and rhyme.


While most ballads adhere to an iambic meter (alternating unstressed and stressed syllables), there is no specific meter that a ballad must follow. However, it's essential to maintain a consistent meter within a single ballad.

A popular meter used in European ballads is a combination of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter (eight and six syllables respectively), known as ballad meter. This consistent meter and rhyme give ballads their characteristic melodic quality.

Rhyme Scheme

The stanzas of a ballad usually follow the ABCB rhyme scheme, where the second and fourth lines rhyme. This is because traditional ballads often consisted of rhyming couplets. Additionally, ballads often include a refrain, a repeated line or stanza similar to a chorus in a song.

An example of the ABCB rhyme scheme can be seen in John Keats' ballad, 'La Belle Dame sans Merci':

"O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing."

In this example, the second and fourth lines ('loitering' and 'sing') form a rhyming pair, following the ABCB rhyme scheme.

Types of Ballads

Over time, poets have continued to write and develop the ballad form, resulting in a variety of types of ballads. These types can be broadly classified into four main groups: traditional or classical, broadside, literary, and modern.

Traditional Ballads

Also known as classical ballads, traditional ballads were initially performed orally before being recorded in written form. As a result, the classical ballad form was not associated with a specific author. One of the oldest known written examples is the ballad of 'Robin Hood', found in Wynkyn de Worde's collection from 1495.

Broadside Ballads

Emerging during the early days of the printing press, broadside ballads were printed on small, inexpensive broadsheets. They often featured popular stories and were widely distributed.

Uncovering the Diverse and Fascinating History of Ballads

The evolution of ballads from traditional oral performances to written forms has resulted in a rich and diverse history.

Embracing both captivating storytelling and melodic structure, it's no surprise that ballads remain a vital element of poetry and music in modern times.

The Evolution of Ballads: From Traditional to Modern

Ballads, also known as street ballads or slip songs, have been a significant part of communities since the 16th century. These songs were printed on broadsheets, serving as a popular source of news and entertainment. According to Tessa Watt, millions of ballads were sold in the 15th century, covering a wide range of topics like love, death, politics, and natural disasters. In a sense, ballads can be considered an early form of journalism.

The Literary Ballad

In the 18th century, the literary ballad emerged as a new variant of the traditional form. This shift was mainly due to the interest of intellectuals from the Romantic movement in this unique art form. Poets such as Robert Burns and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were among the first to create their own ballads, staying true to the style of the folk ballad while infusing their own touch of Romanticism. These literary figures maintained the essential elements of ballads, such as rhyme and rhythm, while also expanding the subject matter to include more varied themes.

An excellent example of a literary ballad is Robert Burns' 'The Whistle – A Ballad' (1789), which delves into themes of patriotism, war, and royalty. This ballad strays from the traditional narrative as it is not based on a folktale. However, it still follows a structured plot and boasts a distinct poetic style.

The Modern Ballad

The 19th century marked a shift in the traditional ballad form, with modern ballads being less rigid in terms of rhyme and meter. This era also saw the expansion of the word 'ballad' to include slow love songs. The modern music industry has been heavily influenced by old ballads, paving the way for a new genre known as the sentimental ballad. This music style is characterized by its emotional lyrics and mellow tempo, often accompanied by acoustic instruments like guitars and pianos. Sub-genres such as jazz, pop, and power ballads have also stemmed from this musical style.

Examples of Ballads

'Annabel Lee' (1849) by Edgar Allan Poe

'But our love it was stronger by far than the love Of those who were older than we— Of many far wiser than we— And neither the angels in Heaven above Nor the demons down under the sea Can ever dissever my soul from the soul Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyesOf the beautiful Annabel Lee; And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride, In her sepulchre there by the sea— In her tomb by the sounding sea.'

The final two stanzas of Edgar Allen Poe's narrative ballad, 'Annabel Lee', showcase its unconventional structure and irregular meter. However, it still follows the traditional ABCB rhyme scheme and features a recurring refrain throughout the poem.

Refrain: a repeating stanza or line that appears throughout a poem.

The poem's theme of lost love reflects the traditional ballad style, with a sense of timelessness and undying love for Annabel Lee, even after her death.

'La Belle Dame sans Merci' (1819) by John Keats

'O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, Alone and palely loitering? The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing. O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, So haggard and so woe-begone? The squirrel’s granary is full, And the harvest’s done. I see a lily on thy brow, With anguish moist and fever-dew, And on thy cheeks a fading rose Fast withereth too.'

In 'La Belle Dame sans Merci', Keats breaks away from the traditional structure and adopts a unique style, making it a literary ballad. While the meter and rhyme scheme stray from the conventional form, the refrain 'O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms' remains a recurring feature. This ballad's theme of doomed love stays true to its traditional counterparts, with a touch of Keats' romanticism adding to its poetic charm.

The Mournful Knight: Exploring Oscar Wilde's Unique Ballad

The ballad is a poetic form that has long been a part of traditional Middle Ages folklore.

The Storytelling in Music: Exploring the Ballad Form

A ballad is a poetic form that weaves tales of love, tragedy, and the supernatural, often accompanied by music. One of the most renowned examples is Oscar Wilde's 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol', written in 1898.

Unlike the traditional four-line stanzas, Wilde's ballad features six-line stanzas, giving it a unique touch. It follows an ABCBDB rhyme scheme and alternating meter, adding to its poetic charm.

'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' is considered Wilde's most successful work and was his last before his passing. Inspired by his imprisonment at Reading Gaol, the poem exudes dark and sorrowful themes, influenced by the author's encounter with a man on death row. Throughout the ballad, Wilde emphasizes the idea that men ultimately destroy what they love, echoing in the refrain.

The Evolution of Ballads

The ballad has evolved over time and no longer sticks to a fixed structure. However, it commonly revolves around themes of love, tragedy, life, death, and the supernatural. There are three main types of ballads: classical, broadside, and literary and modern ballads.

  • Classical ballads are traditional folk songs that have been passed down orally and are often anonymous.
  • Broadside ballads gained popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries and were sold as single-sheet prints, often illustrated.
  • Literary and modern ballads are written by known authors and can take various forms and themes.

The ballad is a versatile form of poetry, continuously evolving and captivating the imaginations of readers and writers alike.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ballads

What is the meaning of a ballad?

A ballad is a style of narrative poem often set to music, telling a story.

How many stanzas are in a ballad?

There is no set number of stanzas for a ballad. The most common is a four-line ballad stanza (ABCB). However, poets have the freedom to experiment with the length and structure of their ballads.

Can you give an example of a ballad?

Some well-known ballads include John Keats' 'La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad' and Oscar Wilde's 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol'.

What is a power ballad?

A power ballad is a subgenre of sentimental ballads with a heavy metal or rock style.

How do you write a ballad?

To write a traditional ballad, use four-line ballad stanzas (ABCB) and incorporate themes of love, death, religion, or humor. However, the ballad form is flexible, and poets can experiment with different structures and themes.

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