Ballads: Origin, Growth and Development

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      The term 'Ballad' derived from the French 'ballare', meaning 'to dance', originally signified a dance song, that is, a song sung to the accompaniment of dance. Ballads did not exist in all countries, at any rate, not before the Medievalism. The primitive, popular ballad is an off-shoot of the ring-dance, which originated in Provence about 1100 and spread over a great part of Western Europe. The performers in a ring-dance danced to the accompaniment of their own singing each in turn improvising a rhymed couplet, called 'refrain' in which the whole company joined. It was later on that the story-element was introduced in the song and the refrain disappeared. The bard would recite the exploits of the heroes battle and members of the dance party would sing the refrain only.

Ballads did not exist in all countries, at any rate, not before the Medievalism. The primitive, popular ballad is an off-shoot of the ring-dance, which originated in Provence about 1100 and spread over a great part of Western Europe

      Thus the popular ballads had a communal origin but the mature ballads were undoubtedly the works of individual poets. This is all about the origin of the ballads. Today ballad means a song that tells a story. The primitive ballads possessed no marks of authorship and were the outcome ot tradition among people. It passed from mouth to mouth and was unwritten. In course of ages the old ballads, mutilated and changed in this process of handing down, found their way in print. Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry is a huge Collection of ballads.

      The term 'Ballad' is today loosely applied to all poems written in what is called "ballad metre." i.e., four-lined stanzas with iambic tetrameter and trimeter, rhyming alternately. Hence what are today called artificial ballads as distinguished from primitive popular sort, are also included in this class. These artificial ballads are simply imitations of the artless, Simple, narrative form of their original literary prototypes. But the conditions ot the society which produced the popular ballads have ceased to exist to be general after the fifteenth century.

      About the literary characteristics of the popular ballads, it may be noted that their main charm lies in their native simplicity and primitive feeling. The ballad has its own rules of diction, tricks of phrasing and conventional refrains. The ease and sincerity of the genuine poetry are there. Love of the earth and primal human qualities are the main subjects of the ballads. But the variety is immense. Homely pathos, old-time magic, a fierce love of independence, a brooding sense of tragedy - these pervade the Chevy Chase, the Bonny Earl of Murray; love of out-door life and the changing seasons meet us in the Robin Hood ballads. The ballads frequently borrow the stories from the romances but its alliance is more with older epics than romances.

      The common characteristics of the ballad and epic are singleness of aim, a unity of story, while the romances are a sum-total of story upon story. The ballad is rich in dramatic elements. To sum up: "Its interest lies in the peculiar thrill of the dramatically told story, as it comes to us in the ballads composed to be sung or chanted, not printed and read. Humble as it is in form, the ballad is a wildling from the garden of chivalry; it has a touch of race, a fugitive, often tragical beauty that appeals to all who have hearts for romance. By revealing something of this to the eighteenth century. Percy's Reliques of ancient English Poetry gave a powerful impulse to the Romantic Revival".

      The fifteenth century had an abundant crop of ballads. Indeed, it was the field - day of ballads. Of course, two stand out prominently by their beauty and literary merit, and may be considered here in detail. Chevy Chase is the oldest and first of epical ballads. Its subject is half-historical, being the struggle between Percy of Northumberland and the Douglas of Scotland in the beginning of the fifteenth century - a subject on which many popular Scottish ballads exist. The story is told with a truthfulness of feeling and minuteness of details and it is singularly free from ornamentation of style. It moved Sir Philip Sidney who wrote in 1581, "I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart more moved that with a trumpet." The Nutbrozwn Maid tells the story of love of a dark lady, who is a baron's daughter for a supposed squire's son, who tried the sincerity of her passion by false stories and being convinced of it, man ultimately reveals that he is also an earl's son and marries her. There is no question of a popular composition; it was probably the work of the lady herself. There is a fine dramatic dialogue between the lady and her lover who gives himself out as an outlaw. The style is simple and unadorned. There is the refrain which is a 'must' in a ballad. In its simplicity and homeliness of feeling it is a fine specimen of a popular ballad.

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