If you thought a ballad was just a love song, you’re not wrong. A ballad is a type of poem that is sometimes set to music. This type of poetry has a long history and the musical version of it is said to have started as a folk song, This continues today in popular music and many love songs that we know today are considered to be ballads.
Structure of a Ballad
A typical ballad consists of stanzas that contain a quatrain, or four poetic lines.
The meter or rhythm of each line is usually iambic, which means it has one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. In ballads, there are usually eight or six syllables in a line.
Like any poem, not all ballads strictly stick to these rules but even if they don’t, nearly all ballads are narrative, telling a story.
Just like a song, ballad poems have a musical feel to them thanks to their ABAB rhyme pattern.
Characteristics of a Ballad
Again, not all ballads are created equal, but they generally have the same characteristics:
- Every ballad is narrative, it is short story in verse. The poet needs to complete the story is only a small number of stanzas. John Keats’s ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci is an excellent example of this.
- Ballads have a universal appeal, they are usually based on subjects that are universally understood, no matter where you’re from. John Keats’s ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci, for example, touches on the subject of women, convincing the readers that most of the women are double-crossing evil beings…
- Instead of flowery, extravagant language; ballads tend to use common every-day word – adding to their universal appeal
- Unlike other kinds of poems, ballads have an abrupt opening. The poem starts all of a sudden, without providing any details about the subject matter.
- Dialogue is also an indispensable feature of a ballad. The story is mostly told through dialogues. John Keats’s ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci, is a complete dialogue between the speaker and the knight.
- Use of ballad stanza is another remarkable characteristic of a ballad. Every ballad is written a ballad stanza. Ballad stanza is a stanza, which consists of four lines with abcb rhyme scheme. There are four accented syllables in the first and third line, while in the second and the fourth lines there are three accented syllables.
- Use of supernatural elements is a key feature of a ballad. Coleridge and John Keats’ ballads are good examples of this.
Ballads tend to be quite simple and are easy to read and understand.
Types of Ballad
There are two kinds of ballads, the folk or the literary:
Folk (or traditional ballad) is a kind of ballad with no written form. It is a verbal sort of poetry that was passed down generations through word of mouth. Throughout the ages it picked up the traits of the time and underwent considerable changes.
The traditional or folk ballad has no single author; it was the product of many poets.
The Literary ballad is an imitation of the traditional ballad. The only difference between the two ballads is the ownership. The author of the literary ballad is a known personality, while the author of the traditional ballad is anonymous.
Unlike the folk ballad, time cannot change the text of the literary ballad as it is preserved in hard copies. The poet is the legal owner of his ballads rather than the folk ballads who are not owned by anyone. Literary ballads then are unsurprisingly more polished and lengthy than traditional ballads.
John Keats, Samual Coleridge, Wordworth and many other poets are famous for their ballads.
Here’s a look at John Keats’s ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci:
La Belle Dame sans Merci
O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d 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.
I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
“I love thee true.”
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Writing a Ballad
We think you know enough now to write your own ballad. Keep in mind what you’ve already read. If it helps you can think of a famous love song for inspiration.
Here are our tips for writing your own ballad:
- Most often, ballads are stories about love, but you can make your ballad about any event. It can be about you, someone you know, a relationship or an experience. It can be good, bad, tragic or magical!
- Ballads are a way for you to share any experience. When picking your story, make sure that it has a distinct introduction, a plot with a problem, and a resolution to the problem. Remember you don’t have long to tell your story so make sure you can tell it in a short poem.
- The first line of a ballad is the most important because it introduces the reader to the story. Remember earlier when we said ballads often have an abrupt opening? Try to do the same with yours. Reel the reader in from the very beginning. Maybe you can try beginning with a question or directly address the reader using “you” to immerse them instantly into your story.
- For this type of poem, you can pick your own rhyme scheme. Most commonly, though, there are four groups or stanzas, of three lines with an AAB rhyme scheme where the first two lines rhyme and the third line is different.
- Ballads are unique as poems because they have choruses, much like their musical equivalents. Typically, the third line of each stanza is the chorus, so make sure that this line is something that is relevant throughout the entire story because this chorus will be repeated many times in the poem. Your poem’s rhyme scheme will most likely look like AAB CCB DDB EEB, with the same line at the end of each stanza.
- Since ballads tell stories while using rhyme and repetition naturally they are perfectly adapted for turning into songs. Maybe you can try putting music to your new poem, or simply giving the poem to someone you love.
Ballads are a great way to flex your storytelling skills as well as testing your rhyming skills. If you need some help with writing, whether it’s for an exam, a university dissertation or even if you just want to write as a hobby Superprof tutors can help. You’ll find many tutors on the Superprof website that can adapt lessons to your needs. They are all experienced, knowledgeable teachers and can help you reach your goals.
The fantastic point of poetry is that there are lots of different ways to express your ideas, once you have tried Ballard poems. Try some of the other styles of poetry: Limericks have a funny style, historic Haiku poems from Japan, express emotions through a type of Sonnet poem, the Epic poem styles are interesting if you like stories, see a live slam poetry show or find the similarities between the free verse poems and rap. There are poetry style for everyone.