A ballad is a poem that tells a story and was traditionally set to music.

Ballads usually use quatrains or stanzas with four lines, rhyming either ABCB or ABAB and common meter.

Facts About Ballads

  • Traditional ballads are written in common meter. This means they alternate lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
  • Ballads often use refrains or repeats lines.
  • Lyrical ballads are the most popular form.
  • Ballads decreased in importance after the Victorian era.
  • Today, ballads are usually related to sentimental subjects are written to tell a love story.
  • There are many kinds of ballads making this type of poem impossible to strictly define.

History of the Ballad

Ballads were developed by 14th and 15th-century musicians, or minstrels. They were first conceived as performance songs but as they grew popular, more poets, songwriters, and composers chose to make use of the ballad. The form has evolved from its traditional structure.

Today, readers are likely familiar with what’s known as a lyrical ballad or literary ballad which appeared in the 18th century. These are poems that deal with common topics, like death and love, and take the form of poems rather than songs.

Authors like Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, Oscar Wilde, and Emily Dickinson (among many others) wrote ballads.

Ballad Example #1

Consider this example of a ballad by Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant— by Emily Dickinson

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

This poem follows many of the rules associated with a ballad.

  • It is written in common meter. This means the lines alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
  • It follows the traditional rhyme scheme of ABCBDEFE.

Ballad Example #2

One of the most famous ballads of the 18th century is John Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci.’ Here are the first two stanzas:

La Belle Dame sans Merci by John Keats (excerpt)

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

       Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has withered from the lake,

       And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

       So haggard and so woe-begone?

The squirrel’s granary is full,

       And the harvest’s done.

In these stanzas, the poet utilizes the following:

  • A rhyme scheme of ABCBDEFE.
  • A variation of the ballad stanza that uses alternating lines of tetrameters and trimeters. But, the final line of each stanza is truncated or shortened, to four or five syllables. This speeds the poem up.

More Ballad Examples to Explore

Below are a few other ballads that demonstrate the way the form changed throughout the centuries:

  • ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • ‘Annabel Lee’ by Edgar Allan Poe
  • ‘A Ballad of Two Knights’ by Sara Teasdale
  • ‘Betrothal’ by Carol Ann Duffy
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