Dr. Neeta

Department of English

S.V. College, Aligarh

            Origin of the ballad is folk literature. The word "ballad" has a Latin root meaning "dance," which hints at the fact that early ballads were sung for dancing. It was sung from village to village to the accompaniment of a harp, by a strolling singer or bands of singers. It can be called a narrative verse tale of romance and adventure.  The singers used to earn their livelihood through it and it was a popular form of public entertainment.

Characteristics of Ballad

  • It is a song that narrates a story.
  • Subjects of ballad are the deeds of simplest kind such as love, war, adventure, Family disaster etc.
  • The tale opens abruptly without any systematic introduction and it is told through dialogue & action.
  • An atmosphere of awe and fear is produced to project tragic & sad theme.
  • Single episode is narrated without its minute and specific details.

·         No details of time and place are mentioned.

·          It is well known for its appeal, romantic atmosphere and narration of heroic deeds of adventure.

·         Sometimes supernatural elements are also introduced to enhance the element horror in it.

·         It is impersonal in treatment and does not show any thing of writer’s identity or personality.

·         Sometimes there is repetition of certain lines or stanzas as a refrain for popular applause.

  • It often has a dramatic conclusion.

·         Simple language is used.

·         Chiefly quatrains are used with the rhyme scheme ABAB. The typical “ballad meter” was an alternation between lines in iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Ballads were generally written in quatrains with a regular rhyme scheme of ABCB. However, there were many different variations on the meter and rhyme of traditional ballads depending on their geographical origin.

·         The meaning of the term ballad has changed with the passage of time and at modern time it refers  to any slow love song.

  • Sometimes it has question - answer format. One stanza poses a question & the next stanza answers the question.
Kinds of Ballads


These ballads were of unknown authorship, which had been in existence for ages. These were handed down generation to generation orally. These were not considered parts of literary composition rather were thought to be a part of the oral storytelling tradition  and travelled from one region to another. During this progression a particular ballad incorporated many changes in both words and tune. It goes to the credit of 19th century scholar Francis James Child who compiled 305 Scottish and English ballads into a collection known as "Child Ballads." The famous Ballad of Chevy Chase has also been included in it. The ballad of “Chevy Chase” is the description of a battle fought in the borderlands between the forces of Northumberland’s Earl Percy and Scotland’s Earl Douglas. Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border was a collection of some traditional and a few literary ballads published by Sir Walter Scott in 1802.Later several extended publications were published under the editorship of Scott. The Hastie Manuscript (1858) was a collection of ballads by  Robert Burns which includes some famous folk ballads  like  ‘Lord Randall’ and ‘Tam Lin’ and a few written by him in Scottish dialect.
O I forbid you, maidens all,
That wear gold in your hair,

To come or go by Carterhaugh,
For young Tam Lin is there.(Tam Lin)

Oh where ha’e ye been, Lord Randall my son?
O where ha’e ye been, my handsome young man?
 I ha’e been to the wild wood: mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m weary wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.

Where gat ye your dinner, Lord Randall my son?
Where gat ye your dinner, my handsome young man?
I dined wi’ my true love; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m weary wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.( ‘Lord Randall’)

Literary ballad:

The literary ballad is usually a narrative poem composed by a poet imitating the old folk ballad model. This form became popular during the Romantic period of the eighteenth century. Poets like William Wordsworth, Coleridge and John Keats have successfully used this form of poetry. John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is an excellent example of ballad.

I met a lady in the meads
Full beautiful—a faery’s child, 
Her hair was long, her foot was light, 
And her eyes were wild

I made a garland for her head, 
    And bracelets too, and fragrant zone; 
She looked at me as she did love, 
And made sweet moan. (La Belle Dame sans Merci”)

                 We can see the four-line stanzas throughout the poem, as well as the rhyme scheme of ABCB. Keats also uses the three lines of iambic tetrameter in each quatrain, ending each stanza with iambic tri-meter. It is just like the traditional ballad.
                 Sometimes the literary ballad is more elaborate and complex as the poet may experiments with the form and is free to adopt merely a few conventions of the traditional ballad for example:-
 The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

I looked to heaven and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.
(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”)

Ballads written by famous poets:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798)
William Wordsworth, “Lucy Gray, or Solitude” (1799)
William Wordsworth, “We are Seven”(1798)
William Wordsworth, The Solitary Reaper”(1807)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Lady of Shallotte” (1842)
William Butler Yeats, “The Ballad of Moll Magee” (1889)
Thomas Hardy, “Her Immortality” (1898)
John Keats, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"


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