A ballad always tells a story, its regular rhyme and metre making it memorable for an oral culture, as well as its ability to be paired with musical accompaniment. A ballad is a poem traditionally structured into quatrains with an abab or aabb rhyme-scheme. Traditionally its lines were alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter (known as ballad metre). However, variety of form means that ballads may contain stanzas with up to eight lines. A ballad will often tell a heroic, tragic or comic tale which focuses on one dramatic event.


Popular ballads arose from the European folk tradition and were usually sung to music. Created in an oral culture, there were many variants as each narrator added individual touches. Only later were they written down. They frequently contained stock phrases (e.g. ‘milk-white steed’) and had a refrain, as well as a line which was echoed but gradually altered as the story progressed.

Literary ballads were particularly popular with the Romantic poets. They were narrative poems written by sophisticated poets in imitation of the style of traditional ballads. Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) was hugely influential on contemporary and later poets.


Popular ballad

  • The Wife of Usher’s Well (Anon)
There lived a wife at Usher’s Well,
And a wealthy wife was she;
She had three stout and stalwart sons,
And sent them o’er the sea.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely ane,
Whan word came to the carlin wife
That her three sons were gane.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely three,
Whan word came to the carlin wife
That her sons she’d never see. …

Written in Scottish dialect this exemplifies the strong iambic tetrameter / trimeter metre, direct repetition of details (‘wife’, ‘week’, ‘word’ etc.), as well as incremental changes: ‘A week but barely ane,’ / A week but barely three’.

Literary ballad

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (1772-1834) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1789):
.. At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner's hollo!

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.' .. 

The Romantics aspired to poetic simplicity. Here Coleridge imitates the repetitive metre and diction of the ballad, but the conscious patterning (‘In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,’) and educated reference (‘vespers’) betrays its literary nature.

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