Hello poets everywhere. My name is Tony Maude and it’s my privilege, once again, to welcome you to Form for All.
There comes a time when nearly everyone who learns to play the guitar ‘invents’ the pentatonic scale, the sequence of tones and semitones which forms the foundation of almost all modern western music from Mozart to Metallica. In the same way, it doesn’t take long for a developing poet to ‘invent’ a system of quatrains of alternate cross-rhymed iambic tetrameter and trimeter – what in plain English is called the ballad form.
We shouldn’t be surprised at this. From nursery rhymes to rock music, the ballad form is everywhere. Its lilting dance (the term ballad comes from the Italian ballare, meaning to dance) is a very familiar component of the cultural landscape. Take, for example, this nursery rhyme;
Doctor Foster went to Gloucester
in a shower of rain.
He stepped in a puddle right up to his middle
and never went there again.
Here’s another example from my childhood:
Jack Spratt could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
And so between them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.
Or what about this from Led Zeppelin?
There‘s a lady who‘s sure all that glitters is gold
and she‘s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed,
with a word she can get what she came for.
These are all perfect examples of the form – and we’ll be using them as we look more closely at the characteristics of the ballad, thinking particularly about rhythm, meter, rhyme, and stanza length. We have to start somewhere, so we’ll begin with:
Rhythm or Meter?
When I mentioned to the dVerse staff that I was considering bringing the ballad form to the pub this week, it didn’t take long before I was asked, “Are you talking about the form with alternate lines of tetrameter and trimeter?” The short answer is, Yes, but that’s not the whole story.
Strictly speaking the ballad form is NOT metrical, but accentual. Although most literary examples of the form do follow a regular metrical form, what actually matters is the number of beats in each line; four beats in the long line, three in the shorter one. If we subject the examples I’ve already given to some metrical analysis, that will hopefully become a bit clearer. We’ll deal with Doctor Foster first. Here’s the rhyme written out with the accented syllables in Upper Case letters and lines to denote the metrical feet:
DOCTor/ FOSTer/ WENT to/ GLO(uce)STer
IN a/ SHOWer/ of RAIN/.
He STEPPED in/ a PUDDle/ right UP to/ his MIDDle/
and NEV/er went THERE/ aGAIN/.
We can see that the first line contains four trochees, one for each accent. But the second line has two trochees and an iamb for its three accents. The third line has amphibrachs for each of its four stresses, while the last line goes iamb/anapest/iamb – three stresses. To put it frankly, the meter is all over the place. But the rhythm is perfect.
Performing the same exercise on the Jack Spratt rhyme gives this result:
JACK/ SPRATT/ could EAT/ no FAT/.
His WIFE/ could EAT/ no LEAN/.
And SO/ beTWEEN/ them BOTH/, you SEE/
they LICKED/ the PLATT/er CLEAN/.
This is an almost perfect set of iambs – apart from those two pesky monosyllabic feet right at the start of the first line.
It is Led Zeppelin who are the most consistent with their use of meter:
There’s a LA/dy who’s SURE/ all that GLITT/ers is GOLD/
and she’s BUY/ing a STAIR/way to HEAVen/.
When she GETS/ there she KNOWS/, if the STORES/ are all CLOSED/,
with a WORD/ she can GET/ what she CAME for/.
Perfect anapestic meter, with feminine line endings in the three-stress lines.
Now that’s been pretty heavy going and I think that if you have got this far you deserve a break. Here’s a link to The Bricklayer (a.k.a. The Sick Note) performed by the Corries – a song that demonstrates perfectly the strong rhythm (alternate lines of four and three accents) and wobbly meter of the ballad form. If you’re up for a challenge, you might like to try a metrical analysis on the lyrics … smiles. You can find them here among other places.
When it comes to a consideration of rhyme in the ballad form, then there is one dominant pattern – although others can be used. Here is Emily Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death which displays this scheme clearly:
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labour, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.
Since then ’tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.
If we concentrate on the first stanza, the rhyme scheme is easy to spot:
Because I could not stop for Death, (x)
He kindly stopped for me; (a)
The carriage held but just ourselves (x)
And Immortality. (a)
As you can see, lines 1 and 3 are unrhymed, while lines 2 and 4 rhyme. This is the dominant rhyme scheme in the ballad form.
According to Frances Stillman in The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary – if you don’t have a copy of this, I strongly recommend that you get one – the reason for this has to do with the origins of the ballad form. She says:
“Heptameter is the name of the seven-foot line. It is frequently called the ballad line, since it is often used in that form of poetry. In ballads the line, used in couplets, has a break (or caesura) after the fourth foot; it is usually broken into lines of four and three feet.”
It is this use of the line break (or caesura) that results in the familiar ballad rhyme scheme we saw in Because I could not stop for Death above.
But that isn’t the only possible rhyming pattern. If we look again at Stairway to Heaven we can see another:
There‘s a lady who‘s sure all that glitters is gold (a)
and she‘s buying a stairway to heaven. (x)
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed, (a)
with a word she can get what she came for. (x)
Here lines 1 and 3 rhyme – it’s consonant rhyme – and lines 2 and 4 are unrhymed. (While we’re here, have you spotted the internal rhyme knows/closed in line 3?)
I’m sure that if you want to you could write ballads with other rhyme schemes; abab and aaxa spring to mind as possibilities, but we need to move on before this already lengthy article becomes simply too long for anyone to bother about.
We have three more things to consider, of which two have to do with the layout of our ballads. The first is:
Traditionally ballads are laid out in alternating lines of four and three stresses, but they don’t have to be. There are lots of poems where the ballad lines are not divided. Examples include Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy, A E Housman’s The Colour of His Hair and Robert Service’s The Shooting of Dan McGrew, the opening stanza of which I quote here:
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.
If you read it out loud, you can easily tell where the caesuras would be if Service had chosen to use them.
The second part of thinking about the layout of our ballads is:
Traditionally ballads are laid out in quatrains, but they don’t have to be. Kipling’s Tommy is laid out in octains while Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol is laid out in stanzas of six lines, one of which I show here:
He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.
When it comes to the subject for your ballad, the world really is your oyster. Pretty much anything goes, although it is fair to say that the vast majority of poems in ballad form are written in a narrative style. This is poetry with a story to tell – usually high on action, not so strong on description – but, as we have seen, the form is incredibly flexible.
And Finally …
So there you have it, the ballad in all its glory. There are some who look down on this form, despising its folksy feel, its lilting dance, its sing-song cadences and the fact that, very often, it is used to write humourous verse. However, as the examples above show, it was good enough for Dickinson, Kipling, Housman and Wilde – and to this list I could have added Sir Walter Scott, Lewis Carroll, W.H. Auden, John Betjeman and many others who have put it to good use.
Now it’s over to you.
What to do now.
• Write your ballad poem and post it to your blog.
• Add a link to your poem via the ‘Mr Linky’ below.
• This opens a new screen where you’ll enter your information, and where you also choose links to read. Once you have pasted your poem’s blog URL and entered your name, click Submit. Don’t worry if you don’t see your name right away.
• Read and comment on other people’s work to let them know it’s being read.
• Share your work and that of your fellow poets via your favourite social media platforms.
• Above all – have fun!
PS – Ballads and Music
added 20th September 2013
We saw above that the ballad form is a familiar part of the cultural landscape that many of us were raised in, being found in nursery rhymes, folk songs and even rock music. And it is the connection between the ballad form and music that I wanted to say something about here, because this can be a great help in writing ballad poems.
In music the most common meter is, unsurprisingly, called Common Meter, usually abbreviated to CM. Loads of really familiar tunes are in CM; Amazing Grace and Crimond (23rd Psalm) are two that come to mind immediately. Lots of folk songs are also written with CM tunes; The House of the Rising Sun and the Star of County Down spring to my mind as examples.
Common Meter is the musical equivalent of the ballad form in poetry. When you are writing a ballad, one way to keep the rhythm in mind is to imagine singing your lines to one of these tunes. If the words fit, give or take the odd extra syllable which folk songs frequently have, and you have a couple of rhyming lines in each stanza, then you’ve almost certainly written a ballad poem … smiles.