What is a Ballad Poem? - Definition, Structure & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Ballad poems, folk ballads. . . they're all the same, right? Not exactly. Find out the difference in this lesson, where you'll learn about ballad poems, their structure and get to see a couple examples of this poetic genre.

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.

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  • 3:24 Examples of Ballad Poems
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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.'

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