Ballad (BAH-lihd) poetry is a type of narrative poetry that is written to be sung. It’s a story that can be set to music, so some sort of rhythm or musicality is required. These are the only two absolute qualifications.
Common Qualities of a Ballad
Point of View
This poetic form is often told by a third-person narrator who is omniscient and separated from the story by space and time. When there is a first-person narrator, they’re usually far removed from the heart of the characters and events, though they may be impacted by them.
In addition to the story that runs through the verses, ballads tend to have a repeated component—either a refrain or a chorus. (However, ballads can have both.) Refrains tend to be shorter—one or two lines—and are repeated within each verse, usually as the first or last line. Choruses are typically the same length as verses and are usually repeated between verses.
In English, ballads were traditionally written in common meter, which alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. An iamb as a metric unit, or foot, consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. When describing a poem’s meter, it is defined by the number and type of metrical foot each line contains. So, a line of iambic tetrameter is four iambs long, and a line of iambic trimeter is three.
The typical rhyme scheme for a verse of a ballad is ABCB, wherein the second and fourth lines rhyme but the first and third do not:
The sky had lost all stars but one.
She tried to ask it why.
Her vision got her close enough,
But there was no reply.
The Evolution of the Ballad
In Europe, during the Middle Ages, ballads about legendary heroes like Robin Hood were transmitted via oral tradition, especially amongst music-performing poets called minstrels. They would travel and perform ballads for courtiers, and these ballads tended to be in common meter with the ABCB rhyme scheme.
Once the printing press came along, writers and performers were able to publish and distribute their work. Broadsides or broadsheets, precursors to magazines, often included ballads alongside news and art.
Attracted by the strictness of form and rhyme scheme, as well as the tendency toward fanciful subject matter, poets of the Romantic school, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats, took up the helm in the 18th century. These literary ballads sometimes employed different poetic meters.
Contemporary poets still write poems that could be considered ballads, though traditional form and meter have fallen somewhat out of vogue. Still common are narrative songs—both in literary magazines and on the radio—that use rhyme, rhythm, and repetition to tell stories with universal appeal.
Ballads in Poetry vs. Ballads in Popular Music
What is often referred to as a ballad in popular music more closely resembles lyric poetry, which can be considered the opposite of ballad poetry. Rather than a third-person account of events, lyric poetry is a first-person expression of feeling, sometimes wholly without mention of any actual events. Pop music ballads also use devices like metaphor and simile to make complicated feelings more accessible.
However, poetic ballads have played a vital role in the popular music form. Consider rock band the Eagles’ song “Hotel California.” It tells a story—one that could be the plot of a Twilight Zone episode—and makes use of the ABCB rhyme scheme:
On a dark desert highway
Cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas
Rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance
I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night
Content also connects popular music ballads and the traditional poem. Subjects like social class disparities, for example, appear in both. Consider the poet François Villon, who wrote the satirical “Le Lais” (or “Le Petit Testament”) to point out the extreme dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots.
In the US, folk musicians like Joan Baez used their words to bring light to the lives of people whose stories never made it to the evening news. The verses of her “Prison Trilogy” illustrate the injustice of the US prison system. Notice the ABCB rhyme scheme:
Luna was a Mexican the law called an alien
For coming across the border with a baby and a wife
Though the clothes upon his back were wet still he thought
That he could get some money and things to start a life
The song has a refrain that builds and morphs each time it’s repeated, going from “Come lay, help us lay/Young Billy down” to “Come lay, help us lay young Luna down/We’re gonna raze, raze the prisons to the ground” and finally “They may as well just laid the old man down/And we’re gonna raze, raze the prisons to the ground/Help us raze the prisons to the ground.”
Examples of Ballads in Literature
1. Muriel Rukeyser, “The Ballad of Orange and Grape”
Activist Muriel Rukeyser wrote this poem about how the inequalities in urban areas can seem senseless to the point of randomness:
Most of the windows are boarded up,
the rats run out of a sack –
sticking out of the crummy garage
one shiny long Cadillac;
at the glass door of the drug-addiction center,
a man who’d like to break your back.
But here’s a brown woman with a little girl dressed in rose
and pink, too.
While the poem extends the ABCB rhyme scheme to accommodate additional lines, the essence of the ballad form remains.
2. Edward Lear, “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat”
Though Lear uses mostly anapests (a metrical foot consisting of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable) rather than iambic meter, the stress count and ABCB rhyme scheme are present in this sweet story of an owl and a cat who fall in love:
“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
Each of the poem’s three stanzas has its own chorus attached to it, where one word is repeated (in the case of this last stanza, moon).This adds to the fun and musicality of this beloved children’s poem.
3. “Tam Lin”
“Tam Lin” is an unattributed ballad of Scottish tradition that dates back to at least 1549 AD. The poem’s story tells of a woman who encounters a mysterious man in the Scottish forests:
When she came to Carterhaugh
Tam Lin was at the well,
And there she found his steed standing,
But he was away himself.
She had not pulled a double rose,
A rose but only two,
Till up then started young Tam Lin,
Saying “Lady, pull thou no more.”
“Why pullest thou the rose, Janet,
And why breakest thou the wand?
Or why comest thou to Carterhaugh
Withoutten my command?”
There are many different versions, but this one is a translation based on the best-known version, which is compiled in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1882-1898 by Francis James Child. This translation utilizes the common meter and ABCB rhyme scheme in most of its stanzas, though not all adhere to these characteristics by nature of being translated from its original Scottish.
4. John Keats, “Meg Merrilies”
Here, Keats tells of a charming young woman who had no earthly possessions and liked it that way. Along with the traditional common meter and ABCB rhyme scheme, Ms. Merrilies’s resourcefulness and generosity of spirit take the sting out of even her untimely death:
Old Meg was brave as Margaret Queen
And tall as Amazon:
An old red blanket cloak she wore;
A chip hat had she on.
God rest her aged bones somewhere—
She died full long agone!
Further Resources on Ballads
Learn about the history of Stack-O-Lee—the subject of a ballad that has been performed by musicians like Duke Ellington, Tina Turner, and The Clash—in “The Mystery of Stack-O-Lee,” written by Joe Kloc for Mother Jones.
If you’re more interested in the contemporary musical definition of ballad, check out “How to Write a Love Song” on Supreme Tracks.