Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.
Definition of a Ballad Poem
Do you know the difference between the traditional Irish ballad 'Finnegan's Wake' and Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1974 song The Ballad of Curtis Loew? Both are ballads and have many stylistic elements in common. However, 'Finnegan's Wake' has been performed by many different artists over the years, and its original source is long lost, while Lynyrd Skynyrd's song has a single, identifiable origin. For this reason, The Ballad of Curtis Loew resembles a ballad poem, which is verse composed in ballad form and attributable to an authorial source.
Having definitive authorship is the primary distinction between ballad poems and their non-literary cousins, folk ballads. However, there is another difference, as well. Folk ballads were typically intended to accompany music and dancing and so were more what we might consider songs than poems, which is the case for 'Finnegan's Wake'. In practically every other facet of their creation, though, folk ballads and ballad poems have many things in common.
Singers of folk ballads and writers of ballad poems all rely on rich storytelling traditions taken from community life, local and national history, and folklore. Both ballad forms also usually center on one event per piece; though, through exploring the typically tragic themes of adventure, love, war, death, and the supernatural, artists may include any number of related incidents. Now that we've seen some of the characteristics that ballad poems and folk ballads share, let's take a look at the underlying framework that also appears in both.
Structure of a Ballad Poem
We usually start thinking about poetic structures in terms of their metrical qualities, and most meters in English are based on using set numbers of certain metrical feet, such as iambs and anapests. Composers of ballads, though, are more concerned with syllable stresses than specific feet, and so ballad meter consists of 4-line stanzas, called quatrains, with alternating lines of four and three stresses each. Any metrical feet may be used in a line as long as they provide the appropriate number of stressed syllables.
The rhyme scheme that appears in each quatrain typically follows the pattern ABCB, although ABAB may also show up from time to time. Some rhyme elements might even be carried through the course of the poem as part of a refrain - a phrase, line, or section of lines repeated throughout a poem, particularly at the beginning or ends of stanzas. You can think of a refrain as similar to the chorus of a song, and such repetition is extremely common in both folk ballads and ballad poems.
There are two other elements of ballad poems that got their start in the oral traditions of folk ballads, both of which represent artistic ways of using language. One is the epithet, a commonly recurring word or phrase associated with certain characteristics of a person, place, or thing. One example is Hermes, 'leader of souls.' These literary devices have been used in traditional literature for millennia.
From Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic folk traditions, ballad poets derive the kenning, which is a type of epithet composed of a 2-word representation of one person, place, or thing through its associations with others. One example is 'whale-road' for sea.
Examples of Ballad Poems
Let's take a look at a few examples of ballad poems. One of the most famous works by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poem 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' first appeared in 1798 as part of Lyrical Ballads, a poetic anthology compiled by Coleridge and William Wordsworth. The central event of the ballad is the Mariner's story of his eventful return home from the Antarctic, so Coleridge is able to fill this lengthy piece with a myriad of incidents that happen along the way. The story is narrated to a man identified only by the kenning 'Wedding-Guest'. The Mariner himself is also referred to as 'gray-beard' or other epithets relating to his advanced age.
'The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.'
As a second example, let's take a look at 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' by John Keats. The legend of the beautiful woman without mercy who lures unsuspecting men to their doom has been circulating through Europe for centuries. This ballad poem, published in 1819, is just one version of the classic folktale. As in many ballads, the refrains of Keats' poem act as a sort of argumentation. For instance, in the first two stanzas, you'll find the refrain 'O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,' which the narrator means to use to refute the man's forlorn appearance. Nevertheless, the last three lines of the first stanza are refrained in the poem's final stanza as a way for the knight to give his answer.
'O what can ail thee, knight at arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither'd 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.'
A ballad poem is a type of verse composed in ballad form and attributable to an authorial source. The ability to determine definite authorship is the key difference between these poems and the more traditional folk ballads. Like their predecessors, ballad poems typically center on a single event and involve themes such as adventure, love, war, death, and the supernatural.
Both literary and oral ballads also adhere to the same basic structures, following ballad meter, which consists of quatrains with alternating lines of four and three stresses each. Composers of ballads usually include one or more refrains, or phrases, lines, or sections of lines repeated throughout a poem, particularly at the beginning or ends of stanzas. They also prolifically use epithets - commonly recurring words or phrases associated with certain characteristics of a person, place, or thing - or a specific type of epithet known as a kenning: a 2-word representation of one person, place, or thing through its associations with others.
- ballad poem: verse composed in ballad form and attributable to an authorial source
- ballad meter: ballad structure which consists of quatrains with alternating lines of four and three stresses each
- refrain: a phrase, line, or section of lines repeated throughout a poem, particularly at the beginning or ends of stanzas
- epithet: commonly recurring word or phrase associated with certain characteristics of a person, place, or thing
- kenning: a 2-word representation of one person, place, or thing through its associations with others
After reviewing this lesson, you should be able to
- Define ballad poem
- Distinguish between a ballad poem and a folk ballad
- Identify the elements of a ballad poem
- Cite examples of ballad poems
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