Traditional Ballads


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A ballad is a narrative poem, a poem which tells a story. As a poem form, the ballad belongs to the oral tradition in Western literature. More often sung than spoken, always memorized, traditional ballads were passed from listener to listener, culture to culture. They served the need for entertainment, and perhaps at times provided historical record. Literary ballads, written by poets to be read as literature, have the additional goals of poetry - sound and meaning become as important as rhythm, rhyme and story. A study of the literary ballad, and of all narrative poetry, is enriched a study of its roots in the traditional ballad.

Traditional Ballads

  1. Form: (will depend upon transcription)
    A regular stanza form: 2-line, 4-line, or 8-line;
    May include a refrain, or the refrain may be part of the stanza structure;
    A regular rhyme scheme: AABB or ABAB;
    Rhythm tends to be regular;
    Regular repetition of lines or parts of lines;
    Incremental repetition:  the alteration of a line or part of a line each time it is repeated;

  2. Narrative:
    Full of "unanswered questions;"
    Often begins in medias res, in the middle of plot: the motives and introductory exposition will be lacking, the time and place will be unclear;
    Ends abruptly, often leaving unanswered questions;
    Lacks descriptive detail, including character traits: generalizations and necessary details of setting and action are all that appear;
    Simplifies emotion, often leaving its interpretation up the reader.

  3. Used to develop narrative:
    Dialogue: often in question-answer format, generally alternates between two speakers;
    3rd person, limited narration (limited to the knowledge of what happens in the ballad), if there is a narrative voice (an exception being American ballads, which are often in 1st person);
    Lack of comment from narrator;
    Anticipation as events escalate rapidly to an ending.

  4. Subject matter:
    Because they were a form which served the lowest as well as the highest levels of society, the "characters" in traditional ballads range from the humble to the valiant and grand;

    They often are concerned with the most basic needs, actions, and fears of man - death, greed, murder, courage, love, stubbornness, carelessness, loyalty and the supernatural;

    No attempt at a "happy ending" - in fact, endings are often sad, lonely, and unpleasant for one or all the "characters."

Literary Ballads

  1. Form:
    Most often, literary ballads use a regular stanza form of 4-line, 6-line, or 8-line stanzas;
    Generally you will find a regular rhyme scheme and rhythm, but this may vary from stanza to stanza (for a reason);
    Watch for use of eye rhyme, off rhyme and internal rhyme;
    Repetition is almost always used, often a refrain, and is expanded to include alliteration, assonance and consonance;
    Pay close attention to how the poem sounds - many poets chose the form to achieve an effective sound (humorous, sad, lonely, eerie) as well as for story and meaning;
    Incremental repetition is used - and often not used - to draw attention to detail, sound, or mood;
    Variations of and breaks with traditional form are important - the reader should ask Why?

  2. Narrative:
    Often still full of "unanswered questions," but clues are provided for the reader in the language and imagery;
    Often  in media res;
    Tend to have some closure to the story or a social lesson;
    Longer literary ballads have a climactic moment;
    Often rich in detail of character, setting, physical description; time and place are often clear;
    Story generally has an emotional punch and often a message, or moral, as well; literary ballads may comment upon or contribute "a personal look at" historical or current events or use a traditional historical content to convey a contemporary theme.
    The purpose may simply be humorous; the form is used by authors of children's poetry.

  3. Used to develop the narrative:

    Dialogue, but this may be one-sided (questions not answered);

    Narrative voice is often 1st person or limited for dramatic effect;
    Narrative comment is sometimes included in dialogue, but more often suggested by the imagery, rhythm and sound of the poem;
    Repetition and rhyme are often exaggerated or used in unexpected ways;
    Greater use of internal rhyme;
    Narratives are often built upon escalating events; the conclusion/climax is often known to the reader.

  4. Subject matter:
    Both contemporary and past events, both common and pivotal, both real and imagined; 19th and early 20th century poets often used heroic events, supernatural themes, and folklore; poets now often use "real news" events which have interest to the poet;
    Poems, with the exception of the children's light poem, have a theme;
    Overall content is like the traditional - love and loss, suffering, violence, death, ghosts, exaggerated human feats, human feats exaggerated, everyday incidents upon which a focus is thrown;
    The effect of the "pivotal event" on others is included or implied in the poem;
    They strive for an emotional impact;
    Many modern literary ballads focus on the "everyman/everybody" rather than upon the powerful or wealthy;
    Often, endings are still not happy, at best sweet-sour.

Narrative Poetry - Many narrative poems are not ballads. 

  1. Form & Style:
    The examples studied in the lesson will contain one or more of the basic balladic elements: dialogue (including question-answer), regular rhythm and/or rhyme, a regular stanza form, traditional plot elements like love, loss, supernatural;
    Story is told incrementally, but elements are selected for dramatic effect;

    Moments of lyrical or intense poetic and descriptive language are interspersed with a sparse, traditional descriptive voice;

    Many details are left unknown and untold;
    The poem will often contain non-narrative introductory or concluding elements;
    Poems are personalized often by 1st person narratives or a focused 3rd person voice.

  2. Subject Matter:
    Ranges from hyperbolic to totally imaginary to autobiographical;
    Basic plots still include death, loss, love, the unknown, but also the everyday or remembered incident;
    Generally, concrete subject is less important than poetic goal or social message.

  3. The Question is Why? 

    A poet echoing the balladic form in a narrative is doing so for a reason. This is often to give "a larger significance" to the event or moments captured in the poem, or to the associated feelings and impressions. At times, it is just to be humorous.


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