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.
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. 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 A, B, C, D 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.
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. 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 help.