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Bob Holman & Margery Snyder

Telling Stories in Poetry: The Ballad

By December 5, 2013

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Long ago the narrative poem-songs we call ballads carried the cultural memories of medieval folk in an oral tradition, stories remembered and retold by anonymous minstrels in variations hung on a structure of stanzas and repeated refrains—like the spooky fairy tale of “Tam Lin” or the murder of “Lord Randall” revealed in the question-and-answer dialogue between a mother and son. In the 18th century, broadside ballads were “poetry as news,” commenting on the events of the day.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Romantic and Victorian poets took hold of this folk-song form and wrote literary ballads, telling their own stories as Robert Burns did in “The Lass that Made the Bed to Me” and Christina Rossetti did in “Maude Clare”—or reimagining old legends, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson did with part of the Arthurian story in “The Lady of Shalott.” Ballads carry tales of tragic romance (Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”), of the honor of warriors (Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West”), of the despair of poverty (William Butler Yeats’ “The Ballad of Moll Magee”), of the secrets of brewing (Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend”), and of conversations across the divide between life and death (Thomas Hardy’s “Her Immortality”)... The combination of narrative propulsion, implied melody (ballads are often and very naturally set to music), and archetypal stories is irresistable—read some of our collection of classic ballads out loud and you’ll hear what I mean.


December 22, 2011 at 10:38 am
(1) Christo Heyworth says:

Thanks for this prompt to return to Anglo-Saxon times when we gathered round the fire in the Great Hall and entertained each other – Hannukah and Christmas and Yule rolled into one when family and friends remember what holds us together: VMC&HNY no doubt in textspeak.

December 6, 2012 at 12:02 pm
(2) Elmer says:

Whether it’s Sailors, Indians or Cow Boys, man needs his own. It was said by smarter ones than me “Mam is a social animal”. But he longs to tell as good a story as the one he has just heard, he puts his thoughts together and sometimes he wins, his stories are told and retold.

We love a good story, so the Ballad

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