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The Ballad

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Explore the Craft of Writing Poetry
English Verse

The Ballad is a lyrical narrative. It tells tales in the language of the common man. Ballads can be found in most every culture and language and can be traced back to well before the 14th century. Its shape and sound are formed by oral tradition. "A signature trait is the way that the vernacular dialogue breaks into the narrative, turning it into a living, vivid theater of the speech of its time." The Making of a Poem by Strand and Boland, pg. 74. The ballad is dramatic, musical and communal.

Because its rhythm seems to easily flow from one line to the next, this stanza form can be underestimated. "The work that seems to us the most natural and simple product of time, is probably the result of the most deliberate and self conscious effort." Oscar Wilde. "To sing or write a ballad or the blues takes training; the forms' masters created performances as stylized and complete as in the villanelle or sestina." David Caplan from Poetic Form, an Introduction.

Folk ballads are often fashioned by consensus. If you search, you can find different versions of Sir Patrick Spens with added stanzas from different times and places. Although the author may appear anonymous, it is suspected to be written by many and credit is given to an entire country, Scotland. This is typical of the folk ballad being for and from the community.

In English, the Ballad takes on a specific stanzaic form. Literary ballads are often more structured and the focus of the tale more personal than the folk ballad. It is often about a tragic love or self realization through the events that unfold. It is the literary ballad structure that was borrowed by English Psalters and renamed Common Measure.

The elements of the Ballad are:

  1. a lyrical narrative, a story to be sung. The poet is the story teller.
  2. stanzaic, written in any number of quatrains. Whatever it takes to tell the tale.
  3. often composed in accentual verse with alternating lines with 4 stressed syllables and 3 stressed syllable. Some literary ballads are metrical, L1 and L3 written in iambic tetrameter, the L2 and L4 are iambic trimeter.
  4. usually rhymed, either alternating rhyme scheme abab, cdcd, efef . . . . or staggered, sequential rhyme, xaxa xbxb, xcxc etc (x being unrhymed).
  5. composed with the subject focused on a single, crucial episode. A stanza shows the audience a dramatic moment then jumps to the next colorful moment without always supplying the connecting thoughts between stanzas. This is called "leaping and lingering".
  6. dramatic, we are shown, not told the tale. It is common to hear a character speak from the poem, bringing the story alive.

    The Unquiet Grave---anonymous

    "The wind doth blow today, my love,                                           
    And a few small drops of rain;
    I never had but one true-love
    In cold grave she was lain.

    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."

    The twelvemonth and a day being up,
    The dead began to speak:
    "Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
    And will not let me sleep?"

    "Tis I, my love, sits on your grave,
    And I will not let you sleep;
    for I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
    And that is all I seek."

    "You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
    but my breath smells earthy strong;
    If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
    Your time will not be long."

    "Tis down in yonder garden green,
    Love, where we used to walk,
    The finest flower that e'er was seen
    is withered to a stalk."

    "The stalk is withered dry, my love,
    So will our hearts decay;
    So make yourself content, my love,
    Till God calls you away."








    The Feast in Cana; John 2:1-11 by Judi Van Gorder 9-10-01

    Please come with me, to a wedding feast
    at Cana in Galilee. .
    We'll find a bride, her groom and priest,
    well, rabbi, actually.

    While Jesus and His friends came there
    to join festivities,
    the food and wine were passed with care,
    the day designed to please.

    When all at once, discovered one,
    the jars of wine were dry.
    So Mary summoned up her son,
    on Him, she could rely.

    Come now my son, we need your aid,
    the party's getting glum."
    But Jesus thought the plans were laid,
    "my time is not yet come".

    "Of course, your time is here and now"
    said Mary with a smile.
    The servants met them with a bow,
    were bid to wait a while.

    Then Mary told the servants there,
    to listen to her son,
    "obey his word, none can compare,
    His time has just begun".

    Nearby stood six stone water jars
    of thirty gallons each
    and Jesus gave particulars,
    "fill water to the breach".

    "Now draw some out and serve the host",
    the host was so surprised,
    "what is this wine, you saved the most
    delectable and prized?"

    We watch as Jesus shares His gift,
    a miracle, His first,
    to show His acts of love uplift
    and also quench our thirst.

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