Poetry Knowledge Zone > Class 14

Beauty of Ballads

A ballad is a narrative poem which is, or originally was, meant to be sung.  Ballads are the narrative species of folk songs, which originate, and are  communicated orally, among illiterate and only partly literate people. Typically, a ballad is dramatic, condensed and impersonal: the narrator begins with the climactic episode, tells the story tersely by means of action and dialogue, and tells it without self-reference or the expression of personal attitudes or feelings.

The ballad is the type of poetry that is most often associated with song. The ballad most often tells a story, and has a chorus or refrain that is usually repeated at the end of each stanza. Ballads are considered to be poems that tell a story and indeed balladeers or minstrels were the early entertainers, telling news and stories in a musical fashion.

The basic ballad form is iambic heptameter (see the notes above), in quatrain or four line stanzas, the second and fourth lines rhyming.

In recent years there has been a break away from the rigidity of form and I have seen several excellent Ballads in Iambic Pentameter and even Free Verse, as a result a freer more melodic form has emerged. My favorite will always be Oscar Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Jail" a beautiful example of rhyme and rhythm. Access to the complete poem is included in my Poetry collection.

He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands,
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.
He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby gray;
A cricket cap was on his head,
 And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.
I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye,
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

A ballad is a song, transmitted orally from generation to generation, that tells a story and that eventually is written down. As such, ballads usually cannot be traced to a particular author or group of authors. Typically, ballads are dramatic, condensed, and impersonal narratives, such as "Bonny Barbara Allan" or "House Carpenter." A literary ballad is a narrative poem that is written in deliberate imitation of the language, form, and spirit of  the traditional ballad.

The fact that the ballad form is so simple leads new poets to it early. Its tension/release works well for story-based, narrative poetry, and often new poets start writing in exactly that manner, since it parallels the kind of exposition they are used to in prose. For that widespread application, ballad form appears to be a shiny rental car with the motor running. The key though, is for the new poet is to make his or her ballads ring with some  kind of truth--to transcend the natural ease and sweet lilt of the form against the ear and say something really special.

The ballad form is a sweet one, and ever present in poetry. This verse form alternates lines of four feet (hinged on four stressed syllables or beats) with lines of three feet. The feet are usually iambic (weak syllable/strong syllable), but don't have to be. This 4-3-4-3 etc. arrangement creates a kind of lilting cadence that lends itself to sweet poetry, but it is even more arresting to use this form as a container for other content, too.

To use a classic example of the form, consider this ' 

MARy HAD a LITtle LAMB   '   4 beats
its FLEECE was WHITE as SNOW    '  3 beats
and EVeryWHERE that MARy WENT    ' 4 beats
the LAMB was SURE to GO.    '  3 beats

That is a VERY basic ballad stanza, one EVERYBODY knows. Note here that not all the feet are iambic. Some have extra weak syllables, some have no weak syllables, only the stressed syllable itself. But the 4-3-4-3 line scheme is there. The stanzas of a ballad (and the overall piece) will always end on the 3 beat line.

You may find as you proceed that your message, what you want to say is too much for this very basic form. And that may be a sign you are growing as poet. Yet not always. Great, great poetry has been written in this form for centuries. But is usually written by poets who have mastered more elaborate forms, too. If you like, start here, and see where you go.

Ballads are deeply embedded in the Irish and Scottish culture. My favorite one is the one shown below. Titled 'Captain Wedderburn's Courtship' , it was written by Franklin Child and is known as Child Ballad Number 45.

The Laird of Rosslyn's daughter
Walked through the wood her lane.
And by came Captain Wedderburn,
A soldier of the king.
He said unto his serving man,
Were't not against the law,
I would take her to my own bed
And lay her next the wall.

I'm walking here my lane, says she,
Among my father's trees,
And you may let me walk my lane,
Kind sir, now, if you please.
The supper bell it will be rung
And I'll be missed awa',
So I'll not lie in your bed
At neither stock nor wall.

Then said the pretty lady,
I pray tell me your name.
My name is Captain Wedderburn,
A soldier of the king.
Though your father and all his men were here,
I would take you from them all,
I would take you to my own bed
And lay you next the wall.

O hold away from me,
Kind sir, I pray you let me be,
For I'll not lie in your bed
Till I get dishes three.
Three dishes for my supper,
Though I eat none at all,
Before I lie in your bed
At either stock or wall.

I must have to my supper
A chicken without a bone,
And I must have to my supper
A cherry without stone,
And I must have to my supper
A bird without a gall,
Before I lie in your bed
At either stock or wall.

The chicken when it's in the shell
I'm sure it has no bone,
And when the cherry's in the bloom
I wat it has no stone.
The dove she is a gentle bird,
She flies without a gall,
And we'll both lie in one bed
And you'll lie next the wall.

O hold away from me, kind sir,
And do not me perplex,
For I'll not lie in your bed
Till you answer questions six.
Six questions you must answer me,
And that is four and twa,
Before I lie in your bed
At either stock or wall.

O what is greener than the grass,
What's higher than the trees,
O what is worse than a woman's wish,
What's deeper than the seas,
What bird crows first, what tree buds first,
What first on them does fall,
Before I lie in your bed
At either stock or wall.

Death is greener than the grass,
Heaven's higher than the trees,
The devil's worse than woman's wish,
Hell's deeper than the seas,
The cock crows first, the cedar buds first,
Dew first on them does fall,
And we'll both lie in one bed,
And you'll lie next the wall.

Little did this lady think,
That morning when she raise,
It was to be the very last
Of all her maiden days,
For now she's Captain Wedderburn's wife,
A man she never saw,
And now they lie in one bed,
And she lies next the wall.

These beautiful and soulful ballads were sung in the smoky pubs of Ireland as the men rested a leg over a beer or two.

http://www.contemplator.com/child/ has a rich resource of Irish and Scottish ballads. I recommend reading each of them and savoring them at leisure. The weather is perfect for it.       

Image (c) Gettyimages.com

Smitha Chakravarthula


Views: 8309

Comments on this Knowledge Zone

Top | Poetry Knowledge Zone