‘A Ballad of Two Knights’ by Sara Teasdale is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. These lines follow a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABCB CEFE, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit.
As the title states, this poem is a ballad. A ballad is a kind of verse, sometimes narrative in nature and often set to music. While there are a number of variations, traditionally a ballad consists of thirteen lines with a carrying rhyme scheme. Sometimes they follow the pattern, ABABBCBC with 14 syllables lines. Other times the pattern ABCB repeats and the lines alternate between eight and six syllables. The latter is the case within this particular text.
The ballad form is also known for telling stories, this one completes that task successfully and engagingly. Teasdale even supplies the reader with a pleasing twist at the end.
The speaker starts ‘A Ballad of Two Knights’ by saying that there were knights and they “rode forth” in the early morning. They were seeking “maids to wed”. Both knights were looking for specific features in a woman. The first wanted blonde hair and a beautiful face, and the second wanted someone who is dove-like and pure.
The knights do find wives, but they are the opposite of who they intended to marry. The first knight found someone with brown hair and the second, a “wanton wild” woman. This simple character arc is very pleasing and makes the two knights much more relatable than it seemed like they would be.
Alliteration is a very common technique used by poets and occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. There is an example in the fourth line of the first stanza of “hair” and “head”. Then two more, one in stanza three with “ceased” and “care” and then in stanza five with “wanton wild”.
There is also a great deal of internal rhyme, a few of these instances are noted within the body of the analysis.
Analysis of A Ballad of Two Knights
Two knights rode forth at early dawn
A-seeking maids to wed,
Said one, “My lady must be fair,
With gold hair on her head.”
In the first stanza of ‘A Ballad of Two Knights’ the speaker begins simply. She states that there were knights and they “rode forth” in the early morning. They were not seeking adventure or glory, but instead “maids to wed”. A reader should consider the use of the word “maids” here. It does not refer, as it does in contemporary English, to a housekeeper. Instead, the word is in reference to an unmarried, “pure,” meaning virginal, woman.
In the next two lines, Teasdale makes use of internal rhyme between “fair” and “hair”. With the use of extra rhymes in the text, Teasdale increases the rhythmic nature of the poem, and it’s song-like qualities, an important feature of a ballad.
The first knight has two features specifically he is looking for in a woman. She must be “fair,” meaning beautiful. Plus, she must have “gold hair on her head,” she has to be blonde. These are very simple requirements and contrast with those described by the second knight in the second stanza.
Then spake the other knight-at-arms:
“I care not for her face,
But she I love must be a dove
For purity and grace.”
In the second stanza of the ‘A Ballad of Two Knights’ the second knight who is described as “at- arms,” or caring weapons, says that hair and facial features do not matter to him. He is more interested in her moral compass. He uses a metaphor to compare his ideal love to a dove. She must be as pure and graceful as this animal. The dove is a very important image and relates most immediately to Christianity. It is a furthering of the knight’s preferences. Goodness and wholesome values are very important to him. There is another moment of internal rhyme within these lines with the use of the word “she” in line three and “purity” in line four.
And each knight blew upon his horn
And went his separate way,
And each knight found a lady-love
Before the fall of day.
In the third stanza, Teasdale makes use of anaphora with the use and reuse of the word “And” at the beginning of the first three lines. By doing so, she creates a list of actions. Again, they are very simple. The knights blew their horns, went their separate ways, and each found a “lady-love.” It did not even take the whole day for them to complete this task.
A reader can interpret this as they will. Perhaps, the countryside is filled with possible wives, or the knights are just extraordinarily lucky. Either way the outlandish nature of the venture fits in perfectly with the narrative ballad form.
But she was brown who should have had
The shining yellow hair —
I ween the knights forgot their words
Or else they ceased to care.
The story continues in the fourth stanza of ‘A Ballad of Two Knights’ when the speaker states that the first knight, who wanted the woman with the yellow hair, ended up with someone who had brown. The knights do not have any more dialogue, but the speaker interprets their actions. She states that she thinks, or “weens,” that the knights “forgot their words”. Or, alternatively, they “ceased to care” about their previous requirements. When they saw the women, the things they had dreamed about seemed much less important when faced with a better reality.
For he who wanted purity
Brought home a wanton wild,
And when each saw the other knight
I ween that each knight smiled.
The same can be said of the second knight, who in the fifth stanza is described as bringing home a “wanton wild” woman. A reader should take note of how Teasdale uses alliteration with the words “wanted,” “wanton” and “wild”.
In the last two lines of ‘A Ballad of Two Knights’ the knights looked at one another, the speaker thinks and smiled. They recognized the strangeness of their current situations, and at the same time were more than willing to accept the unexpected change in their circumstances. They were less picky than they thought they’d be and in the end, much more relatable characters than they seemed.