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Printed ballad sheet, May 1797. Museum no. S.1243-1386

Printed ballad sheet, May 1797. Museum no. S.1243-1386

Ballad form

Ballads are fairly short narrative poems usually in quatrains (four-line stanzas) rhyming abcb.

Here is a selection of stanzas in the ballad style:

In summer time, when leaves grew green,
and birds were singing on every tree,
King Edward would a-hunting ride
some past
ime for to see

From King Edward the Fourth and a Tanner of Tamworth, by Anonymous, 16th century

Earl Percy is into his garden gone ,
And after walks his own lady:
'I hear a bird sing in my ear
That I must either fight or flee.

From The Rising in the North, by Anonymous, possibly 16th century

'When will you marry me, William,
And make me your wedded wife?
Or take you your keen bright sword
And rid me out of my life?

From The West-Country Damosel's Complaint, by Anonymous, 17th century

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free ;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1802)

There is no set number of syllables to each line; the rhythm depends on a pattern of stresses. The syllables here marked inbold are those on which the emphasis falls. The first and third lines have four stresses each. The second and fourth have three.

Ballad rhymes are often quite free.

Characteristics of the ballad form

Ballads always tell a story. Typically, they desibe a single ucial episode; what came before is left to be inferred. They focus on action rather than the thoughts of the characters.

Typical ballad subjects are:

  • raids and battles
  • murders
  • hauntings
  • shipwrecks
  • problematic love affairs
  • there is also a long tradition of comic ballads

The action is usually conveyed partly through dialogue. Often the question of who is speaking is left to be inferred from the context.

Desiptions are mainly formulaic: 'blood-red wine', 'milk-white steed', 'garden green'. They are nearly always very brief. There is little use of poetic language: ballads mostly use words that are found in everyday speech.

Repetition with variation is a common device:

There were four and twenty ladies
Were playing at the ball,
And Ellen, was the fairest lady,
Must bring his steed to the stall.

There were four and twenty fair ladies
Was playing at the chess,
And Ellen, she was the fairest lady,
Must bring his horse to grass.

From Child Waters, by Anonymous, 17th century or older

Some ballads, like these, contain refrains, lines repeated from stanza to stanza:

And as he rode over the plain,
Blow thy horn good hunter
There he saw a knight lay slain,
As I am a gentle hunter.

From Sir Lionel, by Anonymous, 17th century or older

'Twas a Friday morning when we set sail
And our ship was not far from land,
When there we spied a fair pretty maid
With a comb and a glass in her hand.

Oh, the raging seas they did roar,
And the stormy winds they did blow,
While we poor sailor-boys were all up aloft,
And the land-lubbers lying down below, below, below,
And the land-lubbers lying down below.

From The Mermaid, by Anonymous, 18th century

History of the ballad form

There are ballad traditions in all European countries. In England the form can be traced back to the Middle Ages. The traditional ballad has been imitated by literary writers since the 18th century.

Traditional ballads were composed to be sung. The authors are nameless. The ballads were not written down until they had been transmitted orally, sometimes through many generations. Many of them survive in several different versions.

Some of the best folk ballads in English were collected in the Lowlands of Scotland and are in Scots dialect.

Ballad singers are less common today, but there still are a few, particularly in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. There are also some fine recordings of traditional ballad-singers, and also of modern folk-singers singing traditional ballads.

It is important to distinguish between the folk ballad and the broadside or broadsheet ballad. Broadside ballads were written and published between the 16th and the 19th centuries. They were printed on one side of a single sheet (a 'broadsheet' or 'broadside') and sold in the streets or at fairs. Many of them are 'news ballads', about stories (true and otherwise) that were current when they were written: notorious imes, executions, apparitions, and so on. The best of them have a udely vigorous style. Most are fairly bad. They were written for singing, generally to tunes that were already well known.

Advice on writing your own ballad

Should you feel inspired to try your hand at writing a ballad, you will probably do best to pick (or make up) a story on one of the traditional ballad subjects, such as a haunting, a murder or a tale of troubled love.

You will also need to soak yourse in the characteristic atmosphere and style of the traditional ballad. There are many popular anthologies of ballad poetry available.

The most complete collection of traditional ballads is still the one that was published in the 19th century by Francis James Child. The text of the Child ballads is available on the web.

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