By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Ballad metre’ is the term given to poems written in quatrains, usually of alternating tetrameter (four-foot) and trimeter (three-foot) lines, rhymed abcb. Ballads originally became popular in the late medieval period, and were designed to be sung and danced to: the word ‘ballad’ is derived from the Latin balar, ‘to dance’.
The ballad form is often used to tell a story: a tragic love story, for instance, or else a tale of adventure and high romance. Often they contain dialogue spoken by one or more of the characters who feature in these narrative poems, and the final stanza often echoes the first, so there’s a cyclical feel to the poem.
But over the centuries, more modern poets have used the ballad form to write other kinds of poems, from meditative lyrics to poems responding to contemporary events. These often retain features of the ballad to a greater or lesser extent, however. Below, we introduce and discuss eight of the finest examples of the ballad in poetry.
1. Anonymous, ‘The Unquiet Grave’.
‘I’ll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may;
I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day.’
This is part-ballad, part ghost story, as we find a dead woman speaking from beyond the grave, telling her bereft lover to stop pining for her. Like many ‘ghost stories’ from the Middle Ages, the voice from the grave is a kindly and well-meaning one here, who entreats her grief-stricken lover to enjoy life (albeit without her) while he still has it.
Although this ballad is thought to be around 600 years old, fans of A. E. Housman’s poems will note the striking similarities this poem had on Housman’s own poems (the Border Ballads were a big influence on his work).
2. A. E. Housman, ‘Is My Team Ploughing’.
‘Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?’
Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.
Since we mentioned Housman (1859-1936) above, let’s take a look at one of the best examples of his use of this form. This is a poem in which a dead man speaks to the titular ‘lad’ of Housman’s 1896 collection, A Shropshire Lad. The two are clearly old friends, and the dead man is keen to hear how things are going in the land of the living.
But there’s a revelation at the end of the poem which he may not wish to hear …
3. Emily Dickinson, ‘It Was Not Death, for I Stood Up’.
It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down –
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon …
Many of the 1,700+ poems written by the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) utilise the ballad metre, although Dickinson often innovates with rhyme, using slant rhyme or pararhyme in place of full rhyme (as above, with ‘down’ and ‘Noon’).
This poem is about the feeling of despair and depression that grips the poet. She begins by describing what it is not: not death, she said, for she was still standing while the dead lie down. But it feels like a kind of death.
It was not night, because all of the bells put out their tongues to announce noon, the middle of the day (‘tongues’ is a pun: bells do have tongues, but the image of the bells sticking out their tongues in mockery takes this wordplay and presents us with a fresh and absurd image).
4. Anonymous, ‘The Bonny Earl of Moray’.
Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands,
Oh where have you been?
They have slain the Earl o’ Moray
And layd him on the green.
This ballad played a curious role in the 1950s, in helping to inspire a neologism: the term mondegreen, the name Sylvia Wright proposed for a misheard song lyric, named after Wright’s own childhood mishearing of ‘And layd him on the green’ as ‘And Lady Mondegreen’.
The ballad stems from real events in 1590s Scotland, when the Earl of Huntly slew his rival, the Earl of Moray (pronounced ‘Murray’, and so rendered thus in some versions of the ballad).
5. Dudley Randall, ‘Ballad of Birmingham’.
Ballads are a truly popular art form, because they were designed to be enjoyed by the people, rather than an elite (the upper classes or university-educated). And although ballads enjoyed their heyday some five hundred years ago, there have been some notable twentieth-century examples.
The African-American poet and editor Dudley Randall turns to the traditional ballad form in his moving ‘Ballad of Birmingham’, about a tragic event during the Civil Rights movement when a Black church was bombed by white supremacists in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.
The poem has many features of the traditional ballad: direct dialogue, a story (and it is usually a tragic story), and powerful use of the quatrain form to structure the narrative. But Randall was writing about a real-life event that had recently occurred. He circulated the poem as a broadside among the African-American community, once again attesting to the popularity of the ballad form.
6. Anonymous, ‘The Ballad of Chevy Chase’.
‘Tell me whose men ye are,’ he says,
‘Or whose men that ye be;
Who gave you leave in this Cheviot chase
In the spite of mine and of me?’
Although the name ‘Chevy Chase’ is perhaps inextricably linked with that of the American comedian, it is actually also the name of one of the most celebrated Border Ballads, set among the ‘chase’ (or hunting-ground) of the Cheviot hills, hence the name of the ballad.
This is a ‘Border’ Ballad in the truest sense: it’s even set on the Anglo-Scottish borders! The poem tells of Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, leading a hunting party on the Cheviots, an action which incurs the wrath of the Scottish Earl Douglas and leads to a bloody battle.
7. John Keats, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ (‘the beautiful lady without mercy’) is one of John Keats’s best-loved and most widely anthologised poems; after his odes, it may well be his most famous. The poem is about a man who meets a knight who has been seduced and then abandoned by a fairy woman: the beautiful but merciless lady of the poem’s title.
Keats wrote this poem in the early nineteenth century, but he draws on the popular ballad form to suggest a link to far older medieval romances. The poem has the hallmarks of the ballad: the abcb rhyme scheme; a story or narrative; and the final stanza echoing the first, so the poem goes, in effect, full circle.
However, Keats changes the metre of the even lines, making the second line of each stanza a tetrameter and the fourth line a shorter dimeter line. This lends the knight’s tale an air of anti-climax and disappointment – he has, after all, been left on a hillside by his lover. We have analysed this poem in more detail in a separate post.
8. Anonymous, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’.
The king sits in Dunfermline toune
drinking the blude reid wine,
‘O whar can I get skeely skipper,
To sail this ship o’ mine?’
Let’s conclude this selection of examples of ballad poems by, appropriately enough, returning where we began: with a classic Border ballad. This is one of the most famous ballads: it’s the tale of a reluctant sailor, Sir Patrick Spens, whom the King of Scotland sends for and tasks with the job of undertaking a perilous sea mission in the depths of winter.
Curiously, there are different versions of this ballad in existence, some of which have a happy and some a tragic ending, suggesting that the tale was adapted for different audiences and perhaps different kinds of occasion.