Here’s what the Ballad poetry form is:
A ballad is a poem that often tells a story.
This narrative form of poetry typically consists of four stanzas and is at times set to music.
Ballad poems have many variations, including lyrical ballads, folk ballads, and modern ballads among others.
So if you want to learn all about the Ballad poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.
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Forms of Poetry: The Ballad
First and foremost, we need to establish something right off the bat.
The word “ballad” suffers from a bit of an identity crisis.
A ballad can refer to a genre of music or a specific type of poem and has been slowly warping from continued usage to the point that some people also use it as if it were just a synonym for “song.”
They are also not to be confused with the ballade, a competing French form.
So while this article will explore what a ballad is in poetry, specifically, it’s important to note that this is only one of a growing number of interpretations of the word, for better or for worse.
One thing that is consistent is that ballads have a deep history with music.
As such, they heavily feature rhyme almost invariably, though the exact rhyme scheme can vary.
Basic Properties of a Ballad
|Unknown; earliest on record is from the 13th century
|Incredibly popular from their origins into the modern day
How Are Ballads Structured?
As with most things involving ballads, the answer is a tiny bit vague.
Ballad poems are generally written in quatrains or couplets.
In the most common ballads, the second and fourth lines of each quatrain will rhyme.
The first and third lines may or may not rhyme.
A typical length for a poetic ballad is roughly 14 lines, but again this is not set in stone.
Even line lengths and meter can vary wildly depending on what region and time period the ballad is from, with each generation of writers seemingly having their own preferences for the form.
Modern ballads are not always metered, but they have a history of being iambic, meaning that they would feature meters of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables, usually in sets of three or four feet.
The form and function of a ballad tend to reflect the geographical region, but the majority of ballads across regions have focused on narrative.
Example of a Ballad
Never for Society by Emily Dickinson
Never for Society
He shall seek in vain —
Who His own acquaintance
Cultivate — Of Men
Wiser Men may weary —
But the Man within
Never knew Satiety —
Than could Border Ballad —
Or Biscayan Hymn —
Need You — unto Him —
Enchant with Classic Style
This example was chosen specifically to show off one of the quirks of the form.
Note that while every second line maintains a minimum of slant rhyme, there are no quatrains insight and the odd-numbered lines feature no set rhyme scheme.
This, on the surface, may sound like a terrible example for a ballad but it actually brings to light the truest thing about ballads.
There is no ‘proper’ form.
Sure, most ballads are written in quatrains and many ballads utilize rhyme on every line, but not all of them.
Instead, we see that Dickinson is willing to experiment with the form openly, only adhering to the vaguest implications of a ballad.
Take note that the poem is written purposely, though.
The even-numbered lines are all exactly five syllables, while the odd lines stay around six.
This ensures that this ‘ballad’ will match the most basic rule of the form: It has rhythm.
History of Ballads
Ballads have been around for such a long time that it’s difficult to pin down exactly where they started.
As a form, ballads have been popular about as far back as our written records of poetry go.
Scholars are divided on whether ballads were popularized by some singular figure or simply emerged organically from the efforts of multiple influences.
The first recognizable ballad dates back to a 13th-century ballad in a manuscript called “Judas.”
Wandering minstrels and poets alike allowed the form to spread like wildfire across Europe, making it incredibly difficult to pin down any one particular origin story or ‘ideal’ version of the form.
Scottish tradition is particularly significant to the form, though, and even the word ballad actually gets its origins from the Scottish dance songs ballares.
Ballads have been written about nearly every topic, though romance and rural labor have been some of the more prominent themes.
Their presence as a narrative form and as a highly malleable form of poetry with abstract origins gives them a unique omnipresence compared to more niche forms.
You could go practically anywhere in the civilized world and find someone, somewhere writing a ballad.
Tips for Writing a Ballad
If you intend to match the style of a particular era of the ballad, or of a particular region, then naturally you’ll need to dig deeper and look into the rhyme schemes and meters that were most popular at the time.
However, if you simply want to write a ballad poem, then the best way to start is to get accustomed to writing quatrains with an ABCB rhyme scheme.
You can graduate to more demanding rhyme schemes (like ABAB) after you get used to rhyming on some lines.
The disadvantage to trying to rhyme on every line, for a novice, is that you’re more likely to force a rhyme where it doesn’t feel natural.
Always respect the flow of your poetry.
If an ending doesn’t fit, then you may need to rewrite an entire line or more.
Remember that it’s easier to write rhyming poetry if you purposely end your lines with words that have common endings.
Try to keep the syllable counts on each line as similar as possible.
Due to their innate relationship with music, ballads are expected to flow nicely.
Uniform line lengths, at least on the lines that rhyme with each other, will go a long way toward making your poem work better.
Ballads are unique in that the way they sound is just as important as the story they tell and far more important than how they look on a page.
If you can’t imagine someone singing your poem, then it probably isn’t ready yet.
Chisel away at the lines that don’t match and pay very, very close attention to syllable counts and rhyme scheme.
Slant rhymes will rarely cut it in ballads.
The good news is that they’re actually not all that hard to write once you get a natural feel for writing rhyming poetry.
Ballads have such a wide and varied history that few people would have the nerve to tell you that your interpretation of a ballad is ‘wrong’ as long as it properly resembles one.
This is ultimately among the most liberating forms of poetry to write, so don’t be afraid to experiment a bit with the form.
The notion that ballad and ballade both exist and are different terms that both can refer to poetic forms makes me want to stick my tongue in an electrical outlet.
Way to go, language.
Another home run!
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