Ballad: Definition, Examples, and Characteristics

Ballad: Definition, Examples, and Characteristics

Definition of Ballad

A ballad is a form of narrative verse that can be either poetic or musical. As a literary device, it typically consists of a series of four-line stanzas. Ballads were originally part of an oral tradition in rural societies and were often anonymous retellings of local legends and stories by wandering minstrels during the Middle Ages. Traditional or "folk" ballads, as well as literary ballads created intentionally by poets, exist.

Examples of Subject Matter Found in Ballads

  • Tragic romance
  • Reimagination of legends
  • Religion, life, and death
  • Recounting historical events
  • The supernatural
  • Happy love stories
  • Honor of warriors/soldiers
  • Despair of poverty
  • Personal stories
  • Archetypal stories

Examples of Ballads in Popular Music

Ballads can be found in various music genres, including rock, soul, country, and heavy metal. Here are some examples of ballads in popular music:

  • Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan)
  • Yesterday (The Beatles)
  • Piano Man (Billy Joel)
  • Can’t Help Falling in Love (Elvis Presley)
  • You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling (Righteous Brothers)
  • American Pie (Don McLean)
  • Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
  • Angie (Rolling Stones)
  • Only the Lonely (Roy Orbison)
  • Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel)
  • Tears in Heaven (Eric Clapton)
  • Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)
  • Open Arms (Journey)
  • He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother) (The Hollies)
  • Desperado (The Eagles)

Famous Examples of Ballads in Poetry

Ballads have been adopted by poets, and they can be seen as a crossroads between traditional folk ballads and modern narrative poems. Here are some famous examples of ballads in poetry:

  • John Barleycorn: A Ballad (Robert Burns)
  • The Ballad of the Dark Ladie (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
  • A Ballad of Burdens (Algernon Charles Swinburne)
  • A Ballad of Boding (Christina Rossetti)
  • The Ballad of East and West (Rudyard Kipling)
  • The Ballad of Moll Magee (William Butler Yeats)
  • Bridal Ballad (Edgar Allan Poe)
  • The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Oscar Wilde)
  • The Sonnet-Ballad (Gwendolyn Brooks)
  • A Ballad of the Two Knights (Sara Teasdale)
  • An Eastern Ballad (Allen Ginsberg)
  • The Ballad of the Landlord (Langston Hughes)
  • Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait (Dylan Thomas)
  • A Boston Ballad (Walt Whitman)
  • The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Structure of Ballad

Ballads often have the following structural characteristics:

  • They follow an ABCB or ABAB rhyme scheme.
  • They are typically written in quatrains or four-lined stanzas.
  • The first and third lines are in iambic tetrameter, while the second and fourth lines are in iambic trimeter.
  • They are narrative poems or songs.
  • They are often used for singing on various occasions.

Meter and Rhyme Scheme in Ballads

Most ballads use a four-lined stanza, known as "ballad measure," with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. The rhyme scheme is usually ABCB, where the second and fourth lines rhyme, though occasionally the first and third lines rhyme. Some ballads may feature two lines, forming rhymed couplets of seven-stress lines.

The Evolution/History of the Ballad

The term "ballad" is derived from the Scottish word "ballares," which means to dance. Ballads have evolved over time and have been influenced by various traditions, including Germanic and Minnesang traditions. The history of ballads can be traced back to the 13th century, with the first English ballad being "Judas."

The Importance of Ballads in Modern Literature

The importance of ballads in modern literature varies across cultures and regions. In some cultures, ballads remain integral to traditional customs, such as weddings and festivals. However, in postmodern literature, other genres have gained popularity, which has somewhat relegated ballads to secondary positions. Nevertheless, ballads are still appreciated for their entertainment value and emotional expression in certain regions and by some singers.

Difference between Ballad and Epic Poem

Ballads and epic poems, although both written for singing or narrating stories with music, have distinct differences:

  • Ballads are shorter, while epic poems are usually very long.
  • Ballads have specific, short themes, while epics often have multiple themes.
  • Ballads have a rhyme scheme, while epics are often written in blank verse.
  • Ballads typically consist of a few stanzas, whereas epics can run for thousands of lines.
  • Ballads focus on simple language and common themes, while epics employ grand styles and iambic pentameter.

How to Write a Ballad?

When writing a ballad, consider the following steps:

  1. Ensure the ballad is relevant to the culture, region, and tribal customs.
  2. Choose a narrative poetic form for your topic.
  3. Divide the ballad into stanzas with a specific rhyme scheme.
  4. Check the syllables for accent.
  5. Revise the ballad for clarity and rhythm.
  6. Use regional metaphors and similes as needed.

Characteristics of Ballad in Literature

Ballads in literature typically exhibit the following characteristics:

  • They have a sense of rhythm and music.
  • They aim to express strong emotions through music.
  • They often feature a good rhyme scheme, such as ABAB or ABCB.
  • They incorporate regional themes and musicality.
  • They are narrative poems.

Examples of Ballads in Literature

Ballads have had a significant impact on poetry, and they continue to be appreciated for their narrative and melodic qualities. Here are examples of ballads in literature:

Example 1: "La Belle Dame sans Merci" by John Keats

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
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!’

Example 2: "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe

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.

Example 3: "Ballad of the Goodly Fere" by Ezra Pound

If they think they ha’ snared our Goodly Fere
They are fools to the last degree.
“I’ll go to the feast,” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Though I go to the gallows tree.”

These examples illustrate the diverse range of themes and emotions that ballads can convey, from love and enchantment to heroism and sacrifice. Ballads, with their narrative and musical qualities, continue to captivate readers and listeners alike.

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