Singing the Old Songs: Traditional and Literary Ballads

A Collection of Ballad Poems

Young girls running in a meadow
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The ballad is at the intersection of poetry and song, from traditional folk ballads crystallizing out of the mists of ancient oral traditions to modern literary ballads in which poets use the old narrative forms to retell traditional legends or to tell stories of their own. 

The Evolution of Balladry

A ballad is simply a narrative poem or song, and there are many variations on balladry. Traditional folk ballads began with the anonymous wandering minstrels of the Middle Ages, who handed down stories and legends in these poem-songs, using a structure of stanzas and repeated refrains to remember, retell, and embellish local tales. Many of these folk ballads were collected in the 17th and 18th centuries by scholars like Harvard professor Francis James Child and poets like Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.

Two of the ballads in this collection are examples of this type of traditional ballad, anonymous retellings of local legends: the spooky fairy tale “Tam Lin” and “Lord Randall,” which reveals the story of a murder in the question-and-answer dialogue between a mother and son. Folk ballads also told love stories both tragic and happy, tales of religion and the supernatural, and recountings of historical events.

After the 16th-century invention of inexpensive printing, ballads moved from the oral tradition onto newsprint. Broadside ballads were “poetry as news,” commenting on the events of the day—although many of the older traditional folk ballads were also distributed as broadsides in print.

Literary Ballads by Known Poets

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Romantic and Victorian poets took hold of this folk-song form and wrote literary ballads, telling their own stories, as Robert Burns did in “The Lass That Made the Bed to Me” and Christina Rossetti did in “Maude Clare”—or reimagining old legends, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson did with part of the Arthurian story in “The Lady of Shalott.”

Ballads carry tales of tragic romance (Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”), of the honor of warriors (Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West”), of the despair of poverty (William Butler Yeats’ “The Ballad of Moll Magee”), of the secrets of brewing (Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend”), and of conversations across the divide between life and death (Thomas Hardy’s “Her Immortality”). The ballad's combination of narrative propulsion implied melody (ballads are often and very naturally set to music), and archetypal stories are irresistible.

 

The Varied Structures of Ballads

Most ballads are structured in short stanzas, often the quatrain form that has come to be known as “ballad measure”—alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (four stressed beats, da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM) and iambic trimeter (three stressed beats, da DUM da DUM da DUM), rhyming the second and fourth lines of each stanza. Other ballads combine the four lines into two, forming rhymed couplets of seven-stress lines that are sometimes called “fourteeners.” But the word “ballad” refers to a general type of poem, not necessarily a fixed poetic form, and many ballad poems take liberties with the ballad stanza or abandon it altogether.

Examples of Ballads

In chronological order, some classic ballads are as follows;

  • Anonymous, “Tam Lin” (traditional folk ballad, written down by James Child in 1729)
  • Anonymous, “Lord Randall” (traditional ballad published by Sir Walter Scott in 1803)
  • Robert Burns, “John Barleycorn: A Ballad” (1782)
  • Robert Burns, “The Lass That Made the Bed to Me” (1795)
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798)
  • William Wordsworth, “Lucy Gray, or Solitude” (1799)
  • John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (1820)
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Ballad of the Dark Ladie” (1834)
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Lady of Shalott” (1842)
  • Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee” (1849)
  • Christina Rossetti, “Maude Clare” (1862)
  • Algernon Charles Swinburne, “A Ballad of Burdens” (1866)
  • Christina Rossetti, “A Ballad of Boding” (1881)
  • Rudyard Kipling, “The Ballad of East and West” (1889)
  • William Butler Yeats, “The Ballad of Moll Magee” (1889)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, “Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend” (1890)
  • Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898)
  • Thomas Hardy, “Her Immortality” (1898)
  • William Butler Yeats, “The Host of the Air” (1899)
  • Ezra Pound, “Ballad of the Goodly Fere” (1909)