Ballad: Meaning, Form, Structure & Poem (2023)

What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you come across the word 'ballad'? Perhaps an emotion-fuelled acoustic love song or an 80s power ballad? While a ballad in the context of poetry is something quite different, the modern music industry has certainly been influenced by this traditional poetic form. Ballads are one of the oldest poetic forms in English. Traditionally set to music, ballads have played a characteristic role in popular poetry from the 14th century up until the 19th century.

Ballad: Meaning, Form, Structure & Poem (1)Fig. 1 - An acoustic guitar which could be used to play a ballad.

The Origin of the Ballad

The word 'ballad' is pronounced 'bal - lad'. 'Ballad' is derived from an old French word, balade, which means a song that people dance to. The etymology of balade can be dated even further back to the Latin word, ballare, which means to dance.

Ballads were traditionally sung or recited within rural communities in a form known as the traditional or folk ballad. Ballads originated as a poetic form in Europe around the 14th century. The classical form was popularised orally by wandering minstrels and began to appear in print by the late 15th century. The content of ballads was often a play on local legends from wandering minstrels of medieval times. The poetic form changed and developed with the introduction of the literary ballad, which is a written form of ballad that embodies the spirit of the traditional ballad.

Ballad: common themes

Most ballads are structured as a narrative, and the stories implement a lot of imagery to convey the themes. Some common themes found in ballads are:

  • The supernatural
  • Tragic romance
  • Ancient legends
  • Life and death
  • Religion
  • Love stories
  • Archetypal stories
  • Comical stories

Archetypal stories: a form of narrative that follows a very set and well-known pattern or model. They are often the original story that other iterations are seen as copies of.

Ballad: form

Ballads are a type of formal verse which, traditionally, tend to follow a set meter and rhyme scheme. However, more modern iterations of the ballad have more variation in their form. This section will detail the popular forms and variations of the ballad according to meter and rhyme scheme.

it's important to remember that, due to their variation, it is difficult to identify a ballad strictly on the basis of meter and rhyme scheme.

Meter

Although most ballads will be written in iambic meter, there is no specific meter that a ballad must follow. However, one overarching rule is that, within any given ballad, the meter will remain consistent.

A common meter that European ballads use is alternating lines of iambic (an unstressed then a stressed syllable) tetrameter (eight syllables) and iambic trimeter (six syllables). This form is referred to as a ballad meter. The consistency in meter and also the rhyme is what gives the ballad a song-like quality.

Rhyme scheme

The stanzas within a ballad most commonly follow the ABCB rhyme scheme, meaning that the second and fourth lines in the stanza rhyme. The reason for this is that ballads originally consisted of rhyming couplets.

Ballads also contain a refrain, which is a line/stanza that repeats at intervals throughout the poem – think of it as being similar to a chorus in a song!

A good example of the ABCB rhyme scheme in use is the ballad 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' by John Keats:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has withered from the lake,

And no birds sing.

The rhyme scheme here is ABCB, since the last words of lines 2 ('loitering') and 4 ('sing') are a rhyming pair.

Types of Ballad

Since the origin of ballads, poets have continued to write and develop the form by implementing their own minor variations. This has led to the formation of many different types of ballads which are generally classified into four major groups: traditional or classical, broadside, literary, and modern.

Traditional Ballad

Traditional ballads are also known as classical ballads. They were traditionally recited or sung before they were recorded in written form, which meant that the classical ballad form wasn’t attributable to any specific author. One of the oldest known written examples is the ballad of 'Robin Hood' in Wynkyn de Worde's collection from 1495.¹

Broadside Ballad

Broadside ballads were an early product of the printing press, as ballads would be printed on small broadsheets which were quite cheap to produce. Broadsides, also known as street ballads or slip songs, first appeared around the 16th century and were used in communities as a source of news. New and exciting public events would often be written as ballads which were then sold on broadsheets.

Tessa Watt estimated that, in the 15th century, the number of broadsides that had been sold was in the millions.² The topics included traditional themes of ballads such as love, death, and religion. Since they also discussed political events and natural disasters, the ballad could also be seen as an early form of journalism.

Literary Ballad

The literary ballad is a variant of the traditional ballad that appeared in the 18th century and was developed after intellectuals from the Romantic movement became interested in the form.

Literary figures such as Robert Burns and Samuel Taylor Coleridge produced their own ballads, largely imitating the folk ballad while also maintaining their distinctive style characteristic of the Romantic period. Poets maintained the established elements of ballads, such as rhyme and rhythm, but added innovations to their works by expanding the subject matter to go beyond the classical themes.

An example of a ballad is Robert Burns' 'The Whistle – A Ballad' (1789), which includes themes of patriotism and nationalism, war and royalty. This is different from traditional ballads in the sense that it is not a folktale. Nonetheless, it has a narrative with a distinctive style.

Modern Ballad

Modern ballads tend to be less restricted and don’t necessarily adhere to the rules of rhyme or meter that have been associated with the form. In the 19th century, the connotation of the ballad returned to its musical roots with the contemporary meaning of a slow love song.

The modern music industry has been heavily influenced by old ballads. A genre known as the sentimental ballad is used to describe an emotional style of music with themes reminiscent of the traditional ballad. Sentimental ballads tend to have a slow tempo accompanied by soft acoustic instruments such as guitars and pianos. This style of music also developed sub-genres such as jazz, pop, and power ballads.

Ballad: examples

'Annabel Lee' (1849) by Edgar Allan Poe

But our love it was stronger by far than the love

Of those who were older than we—

Of many far wiser than we—

And neither the angels in Heaven above

Nor the demons down under the sea

Can ever dissever my soul from the soul

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side

Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,

In her sepulchre there by the sea—

In her tomb by the sounding sea.

These are the final two stanzas of Edgar Allen Poe's narrative ballad, 'Annabel Lee'. Although this poem doesn't strictly follow the traditional form, it's still considered a ballad. The stanzas are unconventionally structured with varying lengths and an irregular meter, but the poem does use the standard ABCB rhymes scheme and it has a refrain throughout.

Refrain: a repeating stanza or line that reappears throughout a poem.

Being a story about lost love, the poem's thematic focus follows the traditional form. Poe's narrative about true love has a strong resemblance to medieval ballads. The poem has a sense of timelessness, his love for Annabel Lee has not withered with her death, the poet lays 'In her tomb by the sounding sea'.

'La Belle Dame sans Merci' (1819) by John Keats

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has withered 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.

In 'La Belle Dame sans Merci', Keats departs from the classical ballad and writes in a distinctive style that distinguishes the poem as a literary ballad. Keats' use of meter strays from the traditional form, and this is especially evident in the short fourth line in every stanza where there are only three stressed syllables compared to the usual four. Other aspects of the ballad maintain a traditional character, such as the use of the ABCB rhyme scheme and the refrain 'O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms'.

The narrative of the ballad has elements of traditional Middle Ages folklore. The main character is a mournful knight telling the story of his beloved, and the dream-like tone gives the poem a supernatural sense that correlates with traditional balladry.

'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' (1898) by Oscar Wilde

In Reading gaol by Reading town

There is a pit of shame,

And in it lies a wretched man

Eaten by teeth of flame,

In burning winding-sheet he lies,

And his grave has got no name.

And there, till Christ call forth the dead,

In silence let him lie:

No need to waste the foolish tear,

Or heave the windy sigh:

The man had killed the thing he loved,

And so he had to die.

And all men kill the thing they love,

By all let this be heard,

Some do it with a bitter look,

Some with a flattering word,

The coward does it with a kiss,

The brave man with a sword!

Oscar Wilde’s ballad is a famous example of a ballad that is based on six-line stanzas rather than the more traditional four-line stanzas. This deviation gives the ballad a unique aspect not commonly found in the form. The poem uses an ABCBDB rhyme scheme and is written in a consistent, alternating meter.

This ballad is Wilde’s most successful poem and the last piece he wrote before his death. The themes of the poem are quite sorrowful and dark and were written when he was imprisoned in Reading Gaol. Themes of loss, imprisonment, and death are illustrated in the poem, taken from Wilde’s experience of witnessing a man's response to being sentenced to death. Throughout the poem, he repeats the idea that men destroy what they love through the inclusion of a refrain.

Ballad - Key takeaways

  • Ballads are stories that were traditionally set to music.
  • The ballad is one of the oldest poetic forms in English.
  • Although ballads traditionally follow a set form, more modern iterations have far more variations. Therefore, the ballad no longer has a set form but still follows certain trends.
  • The themes of ballads are often love, tragedy, life, death, and supernatural stories.
  • The three main types of ballads are classical, broadside, literary, and modern.

1 Britta Sweers. Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music, 2005.

2 Tessa Watt. Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1991.

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