Definition of Ballad
A ballad is a type of narrative poem that originally was meant to be sung or recited and tells a simple, dramatic story. Ballads are typically written in quatrains, which are four-line stanzas that often alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. They frequently use rhyme schemes such as ABCB or ABAB. The overall tone and mood of ballads tend to be tragic, dramatic, romantic and suspenseful. Ballads often open abruptly and focus on action rather than exposition or introspection. Instead of describing a story, ballads place readers right in the middle of it through vivid imagery, metaphors and dialogue.
Characteristics of a ballad
The key features that characterize the ballad form are repetitiveness, strong rhythms, memorable rhymes and a refrain that repeats either verbatim or with slight variations. These repetitive elements make ballads easy to remember and recite. Over time, ballads passed orally from generation to generation take on new variations but retain their narrative style and emotive impact. They make ample use of literary devices like vivid imagery, metaphors, repetition, and common rhyme schemes to emphasize key moments and aid memorization. Ballads frequently employ dialogue and repetition while focusing on a climactic plot event. Though often conveying legends passed on orally through generations, ballads have an atmospheric poetic style that powerfully conjures characters, mysteries and the ethos of cultures or time periods remote from contemporary life.
Types of Ballads
Here are some common types of ballads:
Traditional ballads – These are anonymous folk ballads passed down orally over generations. These often tell a story. Examples: “Barbara Allen,” “Lord Randall.”
Literary ballads – Ballads that are written by specific authors in imitation of the traditional form. Examples: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Coleridge, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” by Keats.
Lyric ballads – These ballads focus on expressing emotion and ideas rather than telling stories. Examples: “Dream Variations” by Langston Hughes.
Narrative ballads – Ballads that relate to events and tell the stories. This type of ballad often featured dialogue and drama. Examples: “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde” by Georgie Fame, “Frankie and Johnny.”
Cowboy ballads – The ballads originating in the American Old West, often romanticizing the cowboy way of life. Examples: “The Streets of Laredo,” “El Paso” by Marty Robbins.
Murder ballads – Dark ballads are dramatized on violent murders. These are sometimes based on true events. Examples: “Mack the Knife,” “Knoxville Girl.”
Structure of Ballad
Here are some key ways to recognize a ballad:
- Narrative structure – Ballads tell a story, often focusing on a dramatic or emotional event. They have a plot and characters.
- Repetition – Ballads frequently use repetition of lines and refrains. This helps reinforce the narrative and supports oral tradition.
- Rhyme scheme – Traditional ballads tend to use simple 4-line stanzas with an ABCB rhyme scheme. The rhymes are usually not perfect.
- Meter – Most ballads use a basic sequence of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. This creates a singing and rhythmic quality.
- Imagery – Ballads often use vivid imagery to heighten dramatic moments and bring key scenes to life. Imagery helps to convey emotion.
- Dialogue – Dialogue is commonly used in ballads to advance the plot and reveal character. Conversations heighten the drama.
- Subject matter – Common ballad subjects are love, tragedy, conflict, legend or history. Themes reflect the human experience.
- Music – Many ballads were originally meant to be, or can be, sung. The lyrics fit to a simple, repetitious melody.
Examples of Ballad in literature
Following are the examples of ballad in literature: –
“La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John Keats
“I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long,
her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.”
The opening stanza of the poem is characterized as literary ballad. It is written in an ABCB rhyme scheme with iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines. It introduces the fairy-woman central to the ballad’s medieval romantic tragedy. The vivid description establishes the supernatural beauty and mystery of the woman.
“Get Up and Bar the Door”
“Then up and rose him Rankin o’ the Hill,
And he’s gane to the door wi a fixed will,
Syne bowed his head and crept in still,
And he barred the door aboon him.”
The aforementioned excerpt is example from a traditional narrative ballad. In this ballad, vivid Scottish dialect in its dialogue has been used. The repetitive structure, action sequence and emphasis on a decisive dramatic moment is characteristic of the storytelling style of classic folk ballads relaying history and legend orally through song.
“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde
“Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!”
The passage is the refrain that repeats throughout Wilde’s ballad about a hanging he witnessed while in prison. As a lyric ballad, it is focused on expressing emotion through poetry. It uses repetition, parallelism and emotive language to convey the anguish of the prisoner condemned to die.
“Sir Patrick Spens” (traditional Scottish ballad)
“To Noroway, to Noroway,
To Noroway o’er the faem;
The king’s daughter of Noroway,
‘Tis thou maun bring her hame.”
This is concise excerpt from a longer narrative ballad. It uses vivid place references and emphatic repetition to establish the dramatic quest at the center of its story. As a folk ballad, it tells a compelling story through song by employing classic ballad techniques like repetition and urgent imperative statements to immerse listeners in its legendary tale.
“The Wreck of the Hesperus” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“She struck where the white and fleecy waves Looked soft as carded wool,
But the cruel rocks,
they gored her side Like the horns of an angry bull.”
This excerpt exemplifies Longfellow’s use of vivid imagery and metaphors to dramatize the tragedy described in this lyrical narrative ballad. The ominous personification of the rocks highlights the emotional impact of the dangerous wreck.
“The Twa Corbies” (Scottish ballad)
“Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.”
These macabre lyrics are from a grim poetic ballad in which two ravens plot to use pieces of a slain knight for their nest after his death. The chilling, vivid imagery exemplifies the subjects of death and loss commonly explored in traditional Scottish ballads through poetic storytelling techniques.
“The Keys of Canberra” by Dorothy Porter
“The keys of Canberra,
he took them in his hand,
The keys of Canberra,
he took them to the land,
Where once a king,
a king of kings, had stood,
And there he made his home, beneath the ground”
This modern Australian ballad tells the story of a man who discovers a hidden world beneath the city of Canberra. The poem uses repetition and rhyme to create a sense of rhythm and musicality. It explores the themes of power, secrecy and the hidden nature of politics. The structure of the ballad is clear with each stanza following a similar pattern and rhyme scheme. The use of alliteration and assonance adds to the musical quality of the poem.
“Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer
“The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip,
his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.”
The passage dramatizes the baseball setting and building tension in the iconic, tragicomically American tale told through Thayer’s clever humorous ballad. The hyperbolic personification of Casey’s hate captures the climax of the underdog sports story.
Examples of Ballad in Famous Poems
“The Brandler” by A.E. Housman
The Brandler, he was a smith,
And he had a lodging-house to dwell in.
He set the leaves of his book in order,
And then he went to his bed.
This modern ballad tells the story of a man who sets his book in order before going to bed. The repetition of words and phrases, such as ‘The Brandler’ and ‘his book’, develop a sense of musical effect. The poem explores themes of routine, order and the passing of time.
“The Ballad of J.M.” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
“J.M. was a king, a king of kings,
With a magic wand that made the stars sing.
He ruled the land with a gentle hand,
And a heart that was kind and true.“
Here, the repetition of words and phrases, such as ‘J.M.’ and ‘the stars’ creates a rhythmic effect. The poem explores themes of leadership, compassion and the importance of kindness in ruling.
“The Ballad of the Moon” by Robert Frost
The moon ran like a dog through the night,
With its tail streaming behind it.
And the people said,
“What a sight!”
The repetition of words, ‘the moon’ and ‘the night’ creates a sense of rhythm and musicality. The poem explores themes of wonder, curiosity and the beauty of the natural world.
Language of a ballad
The language used in ballads is marked by simplicity, brevity and emotional resonance. Ballads favor plain and direct speech featuring archaic terms, regional dialects, concise lines and repetitive phrases that aid memorization and oral transmission through generations of singers. Literary ballads adopt similar linguistic techniques to tell stories in an elevated yet compact lyrical style that powerfully conjures people, places and parts of the human experience that grip listeners across eras. The language of traditional folk ballads tends to be simple, brief, dialect-rich, and formulaic yet evocative for emphasizing drama and emotion.
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