What is a Ballad?
A ballad, a type of narrative poem, is a song with a simple meter and rhyme scheme. It often contains repetitive refrains and a series of four-line stanzas. Ballads originally came from the oral tradition and, like all narrative poems, tell stories. Originally, ballads were an important form of poetry, but since the 16th century they have evolved into an important aspect of the English poetic tradition. One can identify a ballad through its overall structure, as well as its subject matter.
Unlike other types of narrative poems, such as epics, ballads tend to be narrowly focused. More specifically, a ballad tends to focus on a single dramatic event, which teaches the audience or the reader a lesson or a moral; these traditional ballads tell stories that are often heroic, comic, or tragic. Unlike epics, ballads also tend to have very little exposition, presenting only the minimal amount of external information, such as setting, necessary to understanding the story.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'' is an example of a ballad.
The primary identifying characteristic of a ballad’s poetic structure is its simple meter and rhyme scheme. A ballad often has a series of four-line stanzas with alternating tetrameter and trimeter. For instance, a ballad might have four lines of an iambic trimeter and an ABCD rhyming scheme. A ballad’s poetic structure is focused on repetition and brevity. Unlike epics, which tend to be quite long, a ballad is short and repetitive, making it quite easy to remember.
Note: The stanzas in a classic ballad follow a rhyme scheme of either ABCB (in which the second line and fourth line rhyme) or ABAB (in which the first line and third line rhyme, as well as the second line and fourth line).
One kind of ballad is the couplet ballad, in which single lines alternate with refrain. This type of structure tends to advance the action slowly and allows the protagonist to appear in the most dramatic moments in the story. The couplet ballad is an example of incremental repetition, and it is this type of narration which makes the narration in a ballad comparable to that in a comic strip. Finally, instead of a standard ballad stanza, which uses alternating lines of four and three beats, the couplet ballad uses a four-beat line.
Important Aspect: Absence of Narrator
One of the most important aspects of a ballad is its completely impersonal style of narration. Unlike other songs, which occasionally relay the singer’s mood, the ballad hides the personality and feelings of the narrator; in other words, he or she remains relatively anonymous. First-person narration hardly exists at all within ballads, except in the occasional speech of a particular character, and there is no commentary or reflection by the narrator. The narrator remains hidden in the ballad, as if the story is telling itself without his or her help.
How Can You Identify a Ballad?
A lot of the popular music we listen to today are good examples of ballads. Consider your favorite love song; is it structured as a ballad poem? There are many different types of ballads, too, so not every ballad you hear will be romantic. Like several other poetic forms, the tone of a ballad can vary from romantic, sad, funny, or dramatic. Next time a song comes on the radio, it might be worth asking yourself the following questions:
- What is this song about / what is the main message?
- What’s the poetic structure of this song?
- Is the narrator anonymous?
If you can successfully answer these questions, it’s likely you will be able to determine if that song is, in fact, a ballad, or if it’s simply another type of poem altogether.
Kate Prudchenko has been a writer and editor for five years, publishing peer-reviewed articles, essays, and book chapters in a variety of publications including Immersive Environments: Future Trends in Education and Contemporary Literary Review India. She has a BA and MS in Mathematics, MA in English/Writing, and is completing a PhD in Education.