Most of us are more familiar with ballads as songs, but maybe not so much heroic poetry. The term ballad comes from the French chanson ballade, which were really poems set to backing music with the goal of making people dance. Hmm, isn’t that just a song? The purpose of a ballad is to tell the story of a dramatic event and the people involved. Not only did a ballad have to have an interesting storyline for it to be worthy of being passed down from generation to generation; it also had to have a good beat. Early ballads followed types of iambic meter, like iambic trimeter (ba BUM ba BUM ba BUM) on the first and third lines of a four line stanza (quatrain) and iambic tetrameter (ba-BUM a-BUM a-BUM a-BUM a-BUM) featuring rhyming second and fourth lines. Ballads sprang on the scene during the Middle Ages and were passed down in the oral tradition. Once the Renaissance was in full swing, someone had the bright idea of writing down the words to ballads. Playing a game of Telephone always ends in disaster with 12 kids playing it in real time. I am not terribly trusting of poems and stories passed down orally over centuries staying true to the original content. Ballads are typically written with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (dah-DUM dah-DUM dah-DUM dah-DUM) and iambic trimeter (da DUM da DUM da DUM), with every second and fourth line rhyming. They were most popular in Ireland and Britain starting in the Middle Ages, but also gained popularity around Europe and on other continents. Ballads may be relatively short narrative poems, compared to other types of narrative poetry.
Activity: A Long Ballad
One of the most famous narrative poems written is the ballad The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, a long, captivating, and weird poem that is a rather stunning read, worth the 30 minutes of your time and it’s abab rhyme scheme , which sometimes ends up being aabccbddb rhyme scheme—and a couple others to keep you on your toes.