Definition of Ballad

A ballad is a narrative poem that originally was set to music. Ballads were first created in medieval France, and the word ballad comes from the French term chanson balladée, which means “dancing song.” Ballads then became popular in Great Britain, and remained so until the nineteenth century. The meaning has changed somewhat in the present day to refer to any slow love song.

As ballads were originally meant to be lyrics set to dancing music, there is a noticeable musical quality to the rhythm of the lines. The typical “ballad meter” was an alternation between lines in iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Ballads were generally written in quatrains with a regular rhyme scheme of ABCB. However, there were many different variations on the meter and rhyme of traditional ballads depending on their geographical origin. The main feature in all ballads was their narrative structure and repetition of certain lines or even whole stanzas.

Common Examples of Ballad

There are several songs still popular today that have been passed down through the generations that fit the definition of ballad. For example, the following lines come from the very popular Irish ballad “Danny Boy”:

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.

Other popular contemporary songs have taken on the name of rock ballad, such as the following excerpts:

She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too
It’s a long day living in Reseda
There’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard
And I’m a bad boy ’cause I don’t even miss her
I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart
And I’m free, free fallin’
Yeah I’m free, free fallin’

—“Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty

Half of what I say is meaningless
But I say it just to reach you, Julia
Julia, Julia, oceanchild, calls me
So I sing a song of love, Julia
Julia, seashell eyes, windy smile, calls me
So I sing a song of love, Julia

—“Julia” by The Beatles

When she was just a girl
She expected the world
But it flew away from her reach so
She ran away in her sleep
And dreamed of
Para-para-paradise, Para-para-paradise, Para-para-paradise
Every time she closed her eyes

—“Paradise” by Coldplay

Significance of Ballad in Literature

For the first few hundred years of their existence, ballads were not necessarily considered “literary,” and were instead a part of the oral storytelling tradition. The ballad has its origins in the even older storytelling traditions in Scandinavia and Germany, which can be seen as in the epic poem Beowulf. This tradition arose in the twelfth century and generally had love as their theme at the beginning. Over time, ballads branched out in their themes, and often featured stories that were tragic, comic, or heroic. Most ballads focus on one story with a central dramatic event. Ballads became especially popular in the Romantic movement of the eighteenth century with poets such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats. In general, ballads have fallen out of favor with contemporary poets, but there are still a few new poems being written that fit the definition of ballad.

Examples of Ballad in Literature

Example #1

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

(“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a famous epic poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and is an excellent ballad example. The above excerpt is the first stanza of the long poem, and features some key aspects of ballads, such as the four-line quatrain and the rhyme scheme of ABCB. The poem tells the story of an old sailor who has returned from his voyaging and wants to share the terrible things he has encountered on the high seas.

Example #2

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

(“La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John Keats)

John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is another excellent example of ballad. Like Coleridge, Keats was one of the main poets of the Romantic movement, and idolized the storytelling tradition of ballad, along with the strong emotions therein. We can see the four-line stanzas throughout the poem, as well as the rhyme scheme of ABCB. Keats also uses the three lines of iambic tetrameter in each quatrain, ending each stanza with iambic trimeter, which is just about what the traditional ballad meter was.

Example #3

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

(“The Song of Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats)

Though William Butler Yeats deviates slightly from traditional ballads in “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by using a different rhyme scheme and meter, his poem uses many of the traditions. For example, this three-stanza poem has a narrative about love lost that runs throughout the lines, and features the strong imagery so frequently found in ballads.

Example #4

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

(“Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe’s tragic poem “Annabel Lee” is a ballad that also deviates slightly from traditional ballads. However, there are some key features such as the narrative about lost love and beautiful natural imagery that make is so that it can be labelled a ballad example. Poe also uses repetition and regular rhyme scheme so that the poem could be set to music if someone wished.

Example #5

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ’ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ’im that’s got it.
Now in Injia’s sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin’ of ’Er Majesty the Queen,
Of all them blackfaced crew
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din,
He was ‘Din! Din! Din!
‘You limpin’ lump o’ brick-dust, Gunga Din!
‘Hi! Slippy hitherao
‘Water, get it! Panee lao,
‘You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din.’

(“Gunga Din” by Rudyard Kipling)

This ballad example from Rudyard Kipling highlights one of the main features of traditional ballads. Many ballads used colloquialism and local language in their telling, and this is certainly true of “Gunga Din.”

Example #6

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

(“Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer)

This is a more modern example of ballad, and is often taught to children. The narrative involved is that of a baseball player named Casey who tries to save his Mudville team from defeat. The “tragedy” of the long rhyming poem is that Casey strikes out rather than scoring any runs.

Test Your Knowledge of Ballad

1. Which of the following statements is the best ballad definition?

A. A tragic poem.
B. A love song.
C. A narrative poem traditionally set to music.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: The correct answer is C. While A and B could be true of some ballads, they are not true of all ballads.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following metrical rhythms was considered the “ballad meter”?

A. Alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
B. Iambic pentameter.
C. Alternating trochaic pentameter and iambic tetrameter.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Where are the origins of the ballad tradition from?

A. Great Britain
B. Scandinavia and Germany
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]