A Western Ballad by Allen Ginsberg

‘A Western Balladis a lovely example of Allen Ginsberg’s work. It is not his most popular poem, but it, and its counterpart ‘An Eastern Ballad,’ are very much worth devoting time to. Both of these ballads are non-traditional, meaning that they don’t conform to the majority of features commonly associated with ballads. Although ‘A Western Ballad’ focuses on love, it does not use the standard rhyme scheme or metrical pattern associated with ballads. 

A Western Ballad by Allen Ginsberg

 

Summary of A Western Ballad 

A Western Ballad’ by Allen Ginsberg is a non-traditional ballad in which the speaker expresses his love and the sorrow it brought him.

Throughout the stanzas of ‘A Western Ballad,’ the speaker describes his love as better than any he’d known before. But, at the same time, his “heart” broke in his lover’s care. Whether it caused his death or not, it’s unclear, but now that he’s dead, he muses over the “endless maze” he wandered to get there. The poem concludes with a compelling image of a war and an angel at his side. 

You can read the full poem A Western Ballad here.

 

Themes in A Western Ballad 

In ‘A Western Ballad,’ Ginsberg explores themes that include love and struggle/conflict. From the first line, these themes come through when the poet juxtaposes with words “died” and “love.” He expresses these two things intertwined from the beginning. The speaker’s love brought him sorrow, heartbreak, and everything else associated with difficult relationships. But, it was “so fair” in a way that the speaker had never experienced before. The reference to “war” at the end of the poem, whether that be a mental war, war/storm in the sky, or something else, also adds to the general push/pull feeling. 

 

Structure and Form of A Western Ballad 

A Western Ballad’ by Allen Ginsberg is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of five lines. These lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABBAA, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. What does stay the same is the first and last line of each stanza. The same “A” rhyme is repeated. The poem is, as the title suggests, a ballad. This is a type of poem or song that’s told or sung in short stanzas. They are often romantic in nature, as this poem is. 

 

Literary Devices in A Western Ballad 

Ginsberg makes use of several literary devices in ‘A Western Ballad.’ These include but are not limited to repetition, caesura, imagery, and alliteration. The latter, alliteration, is a type of repetition but only concerned with using and reusing consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “was” and “war” in line two of the third stanza, and the numerous instances in which “died” appear twice in the same line. 

The latter of these two examples is a broader example of repetition in and of itself. In the three short stanzas of the poem, readers will immediately notice that Ginsberg uses the word “did” twelve times. Every iteration of the word appears in the first and last lines of the stanzas. They are part of the refrain of a longer passage of a poem that’s repeated. The first line of the poem is repeated at the beginning and end of every stanza. 

Imagery is one of the most important literary devices that a poet can employ in their work. The best examples are those who engage in more than one sense. For example, these liens from the second stanza, “I wearied in an endless maze / that men have walked for centuries.” 

 

Analysis of A Western Ballad 

Stanza One

When I died, love, when I died

(…)

as now I suffer and abide

when I died, love, when I died.

In the first stanza of ‘A Western Ballad,’ the speaker begins with the line that is used as a refrain throughout the rest of the poem. The line reads: “When I died, love, when I died.” He’s addressing his love, someone he has a romantic relationship with. The use of repetition in the opening line, as well as in those to come, help give this ballad a traditional song-like feeling. 

He tells his love that they broke his heart while it was in their “care.” This is an interesting use of personification that suggests that the speaker’s “love” did not care for him as they should’ve. But, since the speaker continues to refer to the listener as “love,” it’s clear he still has feelings for them. 

Ginsberg continues to use repetition by repeating the word “suffer” in this stanza. He suffered so that he “died,” but now he calls the love “so fair,” something he’d never experienced before. The last line of the stanza is a repetition of the first. 

 

Stanza Two 

When I died, love, when I died

I wearied in an endless maze

(…)

when I died, love, when I died.

In the second stanza, the speaker begins ‘A Western Ballad’ in the same way he began the first stanza. He uses a wonderful image in the next lines, that of a man wandering an “endless maze.” This “maze” is an interesting symbol, one that could be interpreted in different ways. The “maze” might symbolize the complexities of love, or alternatively (or additionally) those of death. Either way, the poet is alluding to the deepest of questions and the most common of quests that human beings go on throughout their lives. 

The stanza concludes in the same way as the previous, with the reiteration of the line “when I died, when I died.” It’s impossible not to relate the words “death” with the word “gate,” a traditional image of the afterlife. 

 

Stanza Three 

When I died, love, when I died

there was a war in the upper air:

(…)

when I died, love, when I died.

The third stanza is more ephemeral and dream-like than those who have come before it. The speaker uses the same refrain line while suggesting that there was “a war in the upper air.” It’s there, he adds, that “all…happens”. These lines might be interpreted as though the speaker is referring to a storm, one that’s happening in the air above him. Alternatively, there might be a more emotional, even more, metaphorical interpretation in regards to society and the illegality of homosexuality at the time the poem was written. 

The stanza concludes with the speaker saying that despite the “war,” there was an “angel” at his side. He died, but there is this moment of joy and peace in amongst it. 

 

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘A Western Ballad’ should also consider reading some of Allen Ginsberg’s other best-known poems. These include ‘America,’An Eastern Ballad,’ and A Supermarket in California.’An Eastern Ballad’ is quite obviously paired with ‘A Western Ballad.’ It exemplifies Ginsberg’s Eastern ideologies while avoiding many of a ballad’s traditional elements, as ‘A Western Ballad’ does. ‘America’ Ginsberg expresses his disappointment and indifference to America’s work while alluding to communism and poverty. 

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