A ballad is a kind of verse, sometimes narrative in nature, often set to music and developed from 14th and 15th-century minstrelsy.
Writers in Australia, North Africa, North America, as well as Europe and South America used the form.
Ballads developed from 14th and 15th-century minstrelsy. The minstrel, a kind of performer in Medieval Europe, could be a musician, acrobat, singer or any other type of conceivable performer. As the decades and centuries progressed, the word “minstrel” narrowed to mean someone who sang songs and/or played musical instruments. The connection to the ballad is clear when one considers the fact that minstrels usually performed songs that related stories of distant places or historical events. These were more often than not imagined, and created from the minstrel’s own imaginations.
While there are a number of variations, traditionally a ballad consists of thirteen lines with a varying rhyme scheme. Sometimes they followed the pattern, ABABBCBC with 14 syllables lines. Other times the pattern ABCB or ABAB repeated and the lines alternated between eight and six syllables.
Due to the fact that ballads were first conceived of as performance songs, couplets were a popular way to structure the lines. A couplet consists of two lines of poetry usually of the same length, that rhyme. But, as the ballad grew more popular and more poets, songwriters, and composers chose to make use of its form the structure evolved. Now, because of the endless variation used by writers in the past and the present, it is difficult to strictly define what about it is and what it isn’t.
Explore the poetic form 'Ballad'
What are the ballad forms?
Since the ballad form was first conceived, the word has had a number of different meanings. At one time, during the 18th century, the form was used for broadsides. A broadside was a single sheet of paper, usually inexpensive, that shared news, illustrations, rhymes, and of course, ballads. They were most popular between the 16th and 19th centuries. This was particularly true in Britain, Ireland, and North America. Since then, they have become intrinsically linked to the ballad form. This is only one kind of ballad though, the form split off into two other distinct forms.
Nowadays, lovers of poetry are most familiar with literary or lyrical ballads. These are in contrast with traditional ballads, those which came from the minstrels of medieval Europe, and broadside ballads, which are sometimes thought to be vulgar or for the common people. When it comes to lyrical ballads, the best-known names include Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Oscar Wilde. These writers all contributed some of the best known, and widely respected ballads in the English language.
Let’s take Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ as an example. This piece was written in 1897 while Wilde was in exile. He had been imprisoned in Reading Goal for gross indecency for the previous two years. His years of confinement inspired him to speak about prison life and the different ways in which men deal with love and death.
There is a narrative to this piece as well. The poem tells the story of Charles Thomas Wooldridge who murdered his wife. He had been sentenced to hang, but while in prison went about his life wistfully.
The speaker, who is generally considered to be the poet, as well as the other prisoners, felt jealousy over this man’s attitude and the fact that he has accepted his fate. Charles Thomas Wooldridge is hanged in the second section of the poem and he meets his death bravely while the other men cower. Throughout the rest of the lines, Wilde speaks about the justice system and comes to the conclusion that one must be close to God in order to find happiness. Here is one excerpt from the text which includes the refrain line “each man kills the thing he loves”.
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
In these lines, Wilde uses the refrain in order to bring the reader back around to the major cyclical theme. That, no matter who one is or what they think of themselves, they will eventually kill what they love. They will destroy it in any number of ways.
What are the major themes of ballads?
Narrative is one of the most important features of a ballad. Scholars believe that the narrative poem and song originated from Germanic traditions of storytelling such as that seen in ‘Beowulf’. The earliest example of a ballad form in England is ‘Judas’ which is included in a 13th-century manuscript. It tells the story of Christ giving Judas 30 pieces of silver to buy food for the apostles. But, when Judas is on his way to the market, he is intercepted by his sister who steals his money. This leads to the pivotal moment in which Judas cells Christ to the Romans for the same number of silver pieces.
In other poems, the ballad story relies greatly on imagery which can range from the tragic to the historical to the comedic.
When did ballads become popular?
Ballads reached the height of their popularity from the late Medieval period until the 19th century. Since then, the world ballad has come to mean something else entirely, at least to the general public. The word is connected to a sentimental, usually slow and emotional love song. This kind of song became popular in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Do poets still write ballads today?
Yes, of course! Today, when it comes to music, ballads are everywhere. But, they are rarer than they were in the mid to late 1900s. Nevertheless, it is likely that there are some in your music library now. Examples include Queen’s We Are the Champions, Foreigner’s I Want to Know What Love Is and More Than a Feeling by Boston. More recently, you could categorize songs like All of Me by John Legend and Stay With Me by Sam Smith as ballads.
But what about poetic ballads? Yes, those are still around too. Check out this list of modern and more traditional ballads.
- ‘The Second Coming’ by William Butler Yeats
- ‘Betrothal’ by Carol Ann Duffy
- ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- ‘The Lady of Shalott’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson
- ‘A Ballad of Two Knights’ by Sara Teasdale
- ‘The Ballad of Emmet Till’ by Sylvia Plath