Definition of Ballad
A ballad is a form of narrative verse that is considered either poetic or musical. As a literary device, a ballad is a narrative poem, typically consisting of a series of four-line stanzas. Ballads were originally sung or recited as an oral tradition among rural societies, and were often anonymous retellings of local legends and stories by wandering minstrels in the Middle Ages. These traditional or “folk” ballads are sometimes referred to as “popular” ballads. Literary ballads are deliberate creations by poets in imitation of the form and spirit of traditional ballad.
One of the most famous ballads in poetry and literature is “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge incorporates many aspects of traditional folk ballad, including a dramatic story of the journey of an old sailor. In addition, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” features conventional ballad elements such as dialogue, word and phrase repetition, and patterns of rhyme and rhythm. Coleridge also implants a Romantic writing influence in his ballad as well, by emphasizing the supernatural and utilizing elevated sound devices. The merging of traditional folk ballad and Coleridge’s own style as a poet create a complex poem that is beautifully composed.
Common Examples of Subject Matter Found in Ballad
The form of ballads, their meaning, and subject matter have changed over time. Ultimately, as a form of narrative verse, most ballads are associated with some aspect of telling a story. Here are some common examples of subject matter found in ballad:
- tragic romance
- reimagination of legends
- religion, life and death
- recounting of historical events
- the supernatural
- happy love stories
- honor of warriors/soldiers
- despair of poverty
- personal stories
- archetypal stories
Examples of Ballad in Popular Music
Most people are familiar with ballad in the form of songs, especially slow and mournful songs about love. Musical ballads typically feature slow rhythm and emotionally evocative lyrics. However, when it comes to popular music, this form appears in nearly every genre including rock, soul, country, and heavy metal. Here are some examples of ballad in popular music:
- Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan)
- Yesterday (The Beatles)
- Piano Man (Billy Joel)
- Can’t Help Falling in Love (Elvis Presley)
- You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling (Righteous Brothers)
- American Pie (Don McLean)
- Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
- Angie (Rolling Stones)
- Only the Lonely (Roy Orbison)
- Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel)
- Tears in Heaven (Eric Clapton)
- Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)
- Open Arms (Journey)
- He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother) (The Hollies)
- Desperado (The Eagles)
Famous Examples of Ballads in Poetry
Though ballads began in folk-song form, many Romantic and Victorian poets adopted this literary device in the 18th and 19th centuries. These literary ballads became crossroads between the oral tradition of folk ballads and modern narrative poems in ballad form. Here are some famous examples of ballads in poetry:
- John Barleycorn: A Ballad (Robert Burns)
- The Ballad of the Dark Ladie (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
- A Ballad of Burdens (Algernon Charles Swinburne)
- A Ballad of Boding (Christina Rossetti)
- The Ballad of East and West (Rudyard Kipling)
- The Ballad of Moll Magee (William Butler Yeats)
- Bridal Ballad (Edgar Allan Poe)
- The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Oscar Wilde)
- The Sonnet-Ballad (Gwendolyn Brooks)
- A Ballad of the Two Knights (Sara Teasdale)
- An Eastern Ballad (Allen Ginsberg)
- The Ballad of the Landlord (Langston Hughes)
- Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait (Dylan Thomas)
- A Boston Ballad (Walt Whitman)
- The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (Edna St. Vincent Millay)
Structure of Ballad
Most ballads are structured in short stanzas. They often feature quatrain form which is known as “ballad measure,” with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. In general, the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme, although occasionally the first and third lines rhyme. Some ballads feature two lines rather than four, which from rhymed couplets of seven-stress lines.
Ballad is a general literary term that does not require a fixed poetic form. Many ballad poems are variations of the form or departures from it. As a form of narrative verse, ballads can be poetic or musical, but not all of them are songs. In addition, though most ballads tell a story, this is not a requirement of balladry. As a result, the structure of ballad is a narrative poem or song, but there can be many variations for this literary form.
Examples of Ballad in Literature
As a literary device and form of narrative verse, balladry represents a melodious form of storytelling. Therefore, ballad has greatly impacted poetry and poets across time. Here are some examples of ballads in literature and the lasting value of these works.
Example 1: La Belle Dame sans Merci (John Keats)
And there she lullèd me asleep,And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—The latest dream I ever dreamtOn the cold hill side.I saw pale kings and princes too,Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans MerciThee hath in thrall!’
In his poem, Keats utilizes the traditional ballad form of measures and meter. In addition, his narrative verse reflects traditional folklore setting of the Middle Ages, with a knight as the main character and kings and princes–all who have been entranced by “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” The mournful tone of the poem along with the conflict of enchantment and dreamscape in opposition to reality is also resonant of traditional balladry.
Keats was among the Romantic poets that revitalized ballad as a poetic form of literature. This allowed for a new appreciation of balladry in poetry in addition to a literary form for others to expand and create new variations. Unlike other poetic forms that are strict in compositional elements, balladry is versatile in its narrative verse, musicality, and structure. This gives readers an opportunity to appreciate ballads from the Middle Ages, to Keats, to contemporary poets and lyricists.
Example 2: Annabel Lee (Edgar Allan Poe)
The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
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 eyes
Of 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.
“Annabel Lee” is a narrative poem due to its characters, conflict, and story arc. Most people, including Poe himself, consider this poem to be a ballad although the measure and meter don’t perfectly follow the traditional form. However, the mournful tone of the poem, the story of lost love, and the musicality of the work through repetition of words and phrases evokes the feeling of balladry in Poe’s poem.
In addition, Poe incorporates elements honoring medieval ballads through the subject of true love and the setting of “this kingdom by the sea.” This underscores a sense of timelessness, both within the poem itself and through its balladry. The poet’s love for Annabel Lee has not died with her death. In fact, the poet has entombed himself by devoting his life and love to his “bride.” This feeling of timelessness is captured in the poem, and the poem itself is timeless in its narrative and ballad form.
Example 3: Ballad of the Goodly Fere (Ezra Pound)
If they think they ha’ snared our Goodly Fere
They are fools to the last degree.
“I’ll go to the feast,” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Though I go to the gallows tree.”
“Ye ha’ seen me heal the lame and blind,
And wake the dead,” says he,
“Ye shall see one thing to master all:
‘Tis how a brave man dies on the tree.”
A son of God was the Goodly Fere
That bade us his brothers be.
I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men.
I have seen him upon the tree.
He cried no cry when they drave the nails
And the blood gushed hot and free,
The hounds of the crimson sky gave tongue
But never a cry cried he.
Pound notes at the beginning of his ballad that the speaker is “Simon Zelotes speaking after the Crucifixion.” This gives context to the narrative verse, as the reader understands the “Goodly Fere” is Jesus Christ. Through his use of ballad form, Pound effectively creates a sense of melody that is like a folk-song. This form combined with the context of the narrative results in the figure of Jesus being portrayed in a way that resembles a folk hero or legendary man, rather than a divine being.
This focused portrayal of Jesus as a man among men reinforces and emphasizes his actions as being heroic rather than a result of divinity or martyrdom. For example, when the poet states that Jesus did not cry out as the nails were driven into him and that his blood “gushed hot and free,” these images are of a mortal man bearing great suffering. Therefore, the impact of this ballad on the reader is both a reminder of Jesus as a man and admiration for him as such, apart from being the Son of God.