Ballad: Definition, Examples & Meaning

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“A ballad is, and always has been, so far from being a literary form that it is in its essentials, not literary, and has no single form. It is of genre not only older than the epic, older than tragedy, but older than literature, older than the alphabet. It is lore, and belongs to the literature.” - Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900)

      The folk-lore and legend out of which the Ballads have sprung have ever remained the peculiar heritage of the peasant class in all countries. The origin of the old ballads of England and Scotland has given rise to a lot of discussion among scholars and specialists. The genuine old ballads, popularized by Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), spread over the late Middle English period and continued to exist up to the middle of the 17th century. The 15th century is regarded as the golden period of ballads though a very small number of them are, no doubt, older and have been assigned to the last quarter of the 14th century by competent scholars. The consensus of opinion, however, traces the origin of the ballads to songs and dances during wakes and festivals. Two old ballads on Biblical themes, Judas and St. Stephen, composed during closing years of the 14th century, were sung by dancing group even within the sacred precincts on the occasion of a religious festival.

      So, ballad is a poem or song narrating a story in short stanzas. A ballad can be dramatic, funny, or romantic. Traditional ballads are typically of unknown authorship, having been passed on orally from one generation to the next. A ballad is a type of poem that is sometimes set to music. Ballads have a long history and are found in many cultures. The ballad actually began as a folk song and continues today in popular music. Many love songs today can be considered as ballads. Ballads were originally written to accompany dances, and so were composed in couplets with refrain in alternate lines. These refrains would have been sung by the dancers in time with the dance. Most northern and west European ballads are written in ballad stanzas or quatrains of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter pattern, which is known as ballad meter. Usually, only the second and fourth lines of a quatrain are rhymed in the scheme ABCB. The following is stanza of ballad from Lord Thomas and Fair Annet:

Ballads usually use the common dialect of the people and are heavily

influenced by the region in which they originate. Scottish ballads in particular are distinctively un-English even showing some pre Christian influences in the inclusion of supernatural elements, such as the fairies in the Scottish ballads Tam Lin. The ballads do not have any known author or correct version; instead, having been passed down mainly by oral tradition since the Middle Ages, there are many variations of each. The ballads remained an oral tradition until the increased interest in folk songs in the 18th century led collectors such as Bishop Thomas Percy to publish volumes of popular ballads. In all traditions most ballads are narrative in nature, with a self-contained story, often concise, and rely on imagery, rather than description, which can be tragic, historical, romantic or comic. Themes concerning rural laborers and their sexuality are common, and there are many ballads based on the Robin Hood legend. Following is the list of broad categories of ballad:

Stall ballads
Lyrical ballads
Popular ballads
Blue ballads
Bush ballads
Fusion ballads (pop and rock)/Modern ballads

      All these categories are primarily meant to convey popular messages, stories or historical events to audiences in the form of songs and poetry. Some of the best known among the authentic ballads in English are The Ballad of Chevy Chase, Thomas Percy’s (1729-1811) The Nut-Brown Maid in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, The Wife of Ushers Well, Sir Patrick Spens, Scott’s Eve of St. John, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, D. G. Rossitti’s Sister Helen and Rose Mary, Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Robert Browning’s Andrea del Sarto and Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott.

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