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At French Court - Ladislaus Bakalowicz

For today’s form, I have decided to present the French Ballade. I have always been enamored with France, perhaps because my father’s father was French and came to America from Paris. I’ve been reviewing my love of the French early 20th century painters–the impressionists, the fauves, the cubists, the abstracts–the modern. When reading about Ballades, it always says please don’t confuse these with ballads. Coincidentally almost exactly a year ago Monty Wheeler (@bumfuzzled) wrote a Form Article at OneStopPoetry on Ballads here and we reprised them again for the pre-Christmas article at dVersePoets. It’s true BALLADES are entirely different!

The Ballade’s name derives from the Old French “balade” (“a dancing song”). The ballade was one of the principal forms of music and poetry in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century France. It contains three main stanzas, each with the same rhyme scheme, plus a shorter concluding stanza, or envoi. All four stanzas have identical final refrain lines. The tone of the ballade was often solemn and formal, with elaborate symbolism and classical references.

One of the most influential writers of early ballades was François Villon. He used the exacting form and limited rhyme scheme to create intense compositions about poverty and the frailty of life. Inspired by debauchery and vagrancy of his criminal life, his work often included scathing attacks on the wealthy and declarations about injustice.

I present here a translated version of one of his poems dedicated to his mother. Clearly the translation is not in the prescribed form, but I believe the original, in French, is true to form.

Portrait of François Villon

Ballade to Our Lady


Dame du ciel, regents terrienne,
Emperiere des infemaux palus….

(Lady of Heaven and earth, and therewithal
Crowned Empress of the nether clefts of Hell)…

I, thy poor Christian, on thy name do call,
Commending me to thee, with thee to dwell,
Albeit in nought I be commendable.

But all mine undeserving may not mar
Such mercies as thy sovereign mercies are;
Without the which (as true words testify)
No soul can reach thy Heaven so fair and far.
Even in this faith I choose to live and die.
Unto thy Son say thou that I am His,
And to me graceless make Him gracious.
Said Mary of Egypt lacked not of that bliss,
Nor yet the sorrowful clerk Theopbilus,
Whose bitter sins were set aside even thus
Though to the Fiend his bounden service was.
Oh help me, lest in vain for me should pass
(Sweet Virgin that shalt have no loss thereby!)
The blessed Host and sacring of the Mass
Even in this faith I choose to live and die.

A pitiful poor woman, shrunk and old,
I am, and nothing learn’d in letter-lore.
Within my parish-cloister I behold
A painted Heaven where harps and lutes adore,
And eke an Hell whose damned folk seethe full sore:
One bringeth fear, the other joy to me.
That joy, great Goddess, make thou mine to be,-
Thou of whom all must ask it even as I;
And that which faith desires, that let it see.
For in this faith I choose to live and die.

O excellent Virgin Princess! thou didst bear
King Jesus, the most excellent comforter,
Who even of this our weakness craved a share
And for our sake stooped to us from on high,
Offering to death His young life sweet and fair.
Such as He is, Our Lord, I Him declare,
And in this faith I choose to live and die.

From Villon, “Ballade to Our Lady,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti, trans., in Poems (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1870), pp. 178- 179.

In English, ballades were written by Geoffrey Chaucer (there are notable examples in the Canterbury Tales) in the fourteenth-century, and revived by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne in the nineteenth-century.

In a traditional Ballade:

  • The stanzas are of fixed size (number of lines and syllables).
  • A brief closing (and sometimes omitted) envoy has half the number of lines of the preceding stanzas.
  • The stanzas and envoy comply with a strong end-rhyme scheme, one of the delights and challenges of this form.
  • The same line reoccurs as a refrain at the end of each stanza and envoy.
  • The shorter Ballade has 28 lines with only three rhymes (designated a, b, and c below) throughout.
  • The longer Ballade (the Ballade Supreme) has 35 lines with only four rhymes (designated a, b, c, and d below) throughout.

Here’s a useful chart to refer to in composing a ballade:

For the shorter Ballade
(the ‘true’ Ballade)
For the longer Ballade
(the Ballade Supreme)
Length of first three stanzas 8 lines (an octave) 10 lines
Length of final stanza (the “envoy”) 4 lines (a quatrain) 5 lines
syllables per line 8 syllables 10 syllables
total number of rhymes in the poem 3 4
rhyme scheme of first three stanzas (upper-case for refrain) ababbcbC ababbccdcD
rhyme scheme of final stanza bcbC ccdcD

Other forms are:
The Double Ballade, which has six stanzas of 8 lines
The Double Ballade Supreme, which has six stanza of 10 lines
There are further variations, such as practiced by Villon, who varied and extended the Ballade form in many ways, particularly by increasing the number of stanzas (or occasionally increasing the number of lines per stanza) while retaining the refrain and the dense use of repeating rhymes.

Here are some steps you might take in composing one:

  • Make a free-write or rough prose draft of a page or two, exploring what you want to say. You apparently can choose your line syllabic length, but then you should repeat it throughout.
  • Look at the free-write for repetition of words or phrases. That might give you some options for the refrain and for the rhymes to be used.
  • Look for rhyming words: you will need eight (8) ‘a’ rhymes and five (5) ‘b’ rhymes, in addition to the refrain.
  • The common practice of using end-stopped rhymes may allow you to pull phrases from you writing in order to construct lines of the appropriate length but whose sequence you can alter if that helps the poem. Like packing an inflated helium balloon into a suitcase, tussle with modifying the sequence to tug the poem into shape.
  • However, modern writers make more use of enjambment and of slant rhyme, for lively and less predictable poetry.
  • As with all formal poems nowadays, it is vital that the form does not “drive” your poem. If the rhyme scheme and form begin to feel forced, then you must assert the poem’s content.

You can see this is going to take a while to compose. Therefore, I am writing two FormForAll articles with this form, this week as introduction, and the second part on February 2. At that time we will look at modern versions of the Ballade and use of enjambment and freer use of the form as they’re now being written. I am having difficulty writing mine, I know. So, if you have already tackled this form and wish to present our readers with your examples I am offering a Mr. Linky this week. For the rest of us there will also be one for the next time when we have had time to digest the information and compose one. Thank you so much for coming by and reading today.