Traditional Poetry Forms: Ballad

Poetry has been used since the dawn of civilisation to tell the stories of the past and the distant. In the middle ages, the form of choice for this oral tradition was the ballad.

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Ballads are quite simple poems that tell a story, making them narrative poetry. They follow a simple meter and rhyme scheme so that they are memorable and can be set to music. Ballads were used to tell the stories of Robin Hood, Beowulf and many a bard’s tall tale. If you would like to write a ballad, perhaps as part of a fantasy series (where they fit very well if you have a medieval theme), then read on.

Stanzas
Most European ballads are written using four-line stanzas. There is no limit on the number of stanzas in a ballad, so use as many as you need to tell a story. However, the ballad is best written concisely, so use the short stanzas to keep the story moving, foregoing excessive detail in favour of imagery and metaphor.

Rhyme
Ballads typically follow an ABCB rhyme scheme, giving the effect of being written in couplets.

Metre
The first and third lines of each stanza are usually written in iambic tetrameter, meaning they consist of eight syllables and follow a pattern of alternating stress beginning with an unstressed syllable. The second and fourth lines are shorter, written in iambic trimeter. This is basically the same as iambic tetrameter except with six syllables rather than eight.

Example

O mother, mother, make my bed,
   O make it saft and narrow:
My love has died for me today,
   I’ll die for him tomorrow.

That’s an excerpt from “Barbara Allen”. You can see from where I have added bold type where the stressed syllables are and that they alternate. The second and fourth lines, though they contain seven syllables rather than the usual six, are still in iambic trimeter but end with an unstressed syllable, which is commonly known as a feminine ending.

A Couple More Things
As with all poetry, rules are made to be broken. The ballad can be reworked to your liking, with changes in metre, rhyme and stanza length. But in order for you to get a feel for what makes a ballad a ballad, you should practice the traditional form I’ve laid out for you.
You should also read some ballads, not least because they are very fun to read aloud, but also because they will give you a more intuitive grasp on the form. Some of my favourites are: “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and “The Lady Of Shalott” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

And that concludes this post on the ballad. Do you have a favourite ballad? Leave a comment below. Please like and share. You can follow Writer’s Allegory on Twitter (@writersallegory) and you can follow me (@matt__milton) as well.

Until next time, keep writing!

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photo credit: 3D Banjo Player via photopin (license)

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