The ballad is a simple narrative poem in short stanzas telling a story. It may be called a short story in verse. Originally it used to be sung to the accompaniment of musical instrument like the hard by strolling bands of singers or minstrels. The word is derived from the Latin ‘Ballare’ which means to dance. This shows its connection with tribal dance.

A ballad deals with some episode of simple motive written in stanza suitable for all oral transmission. In ancient ballad, often, the authors were unknown. The themes were commonly furnished by the elementary aspects of life. Large space was given to tales of adventure and love, fighting and valour. Generally supernaturalism was an essential elements of such ballads.


The ballad begin to appear in England even before chaucer’s time. The earliest English Ballad is the fragmentary ‘Judas’ of the 13th century. The central characteristics of the Ballad are narative presentation, simplicity and spontaneity of expression. The most popular Ballad measure used to be there ‘quatrain stanza’ with rhyme at the end of the second and fourth lines.


There are only two kinds of ballads. The traditional ballad and The Ballad of growth and the modern Ballad or the literary Ballad.

The traditional ballad: It is originated from the folk culture of each nation. Most of these ballads are of unknown of the authorship. They are the authentic ballads that have grown naturally among a primitive race and are transmitted orally from generation to generation. They are impersonal in character because they are not concerned with the subjective feelings of the narrator.

The Theme: The Ballad mostly deals with love and adventure. The narrator generally begins with the climatic episode and tells the story by means of action and dialogue. There is no attempt to give the details of place and time and no introductions are given. Most traditional ballads have a sudden and abrupt beginning as in the famous ballads ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’. These ballads use refrains and repetitions. Many of these ballads have immense dramatic power and metrical beauty. Most of the ancient English ballads are collected in Bishops Percy’s ‘Reliques of Ancient English Poetry’ published in 1765. Majority of them are of Scottish origin. There are several ballads dealing with the legend of Robin Hood. Some other important traditional ballads are ‘Chevy chace’, ‘Edom O’ Gordon’, ‘Thomas, The Rhymer’ and ‘The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington’.

Modern or Literary ballad (Ballad of Art): It is generally written by a learnt poet in conscious and sophisticated imitation of the traditional ballad. Many of the conventional features like the stanza form are retained in the literary Ballad. Bishop Percy’s collections of songs and ballads gave a powerful impetus to the writings of ballads. Some of the greatest literary ballads were written during the period of the romantic revival. The most well-known among them is Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient mariner’ in which the ballad metre is used. Wordsworth wrote two ballads-‘We are Seven and ‘The Tables Turned’. Keats’s famous ‘La Bella Dame Sans Merci’ represents a variation on the traditional Ballad stanza.

Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Theme: The theme strongly resembles that of the traditional ballads. Literary ballads show enlargement of description, psychological interest and a more finished style. In ballads like Tennyson’s ‘The Revenge’, Browning’s ‘Herve Reil’ and Rossetti’s ‘The king’s Tragedy’ we not only this sterling qualities of the old ballads but also traits of originality which make them modern and original poems. The theme strongly resembles that of the traditional ballads.

Important Literary Ballads: Scott’s ‘Eve of St. John’, Kingsley’s ‘The Sands of Dee’ and William Morris’s ‘Shameful Death’.

Mock ballad: the mock ballad is a minor form of literary Ballad in which a comic theme is treated with the seriousness appropriate to a regular ballard. It follows the ballad conventions in all respects except in the choice of the theme.

Important mock ballads: Cowper’s ‘John Gilpin’, William Maginn’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Waggoner’ and an excellent parody of Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

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