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Ballads

A Collection of Ballad Poems

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The ballad is at the intersection of poetry and song, from traditional folk ballads crystallizing out of the mists of the ancient oral tradition to modern literary ballads in which poets use the old narrative forms to retell traditional legends or to tell stories of their own. Here’s our collection of ballads:

Notes on the Evolution of Balladry—Traditional Ballads, Broadside Ballads and Literary Ballads
A ballad is simply a narrative poem or song, and there are many variations of balladry. Traditional folk ballads began with the anonymous wandering minstrels of the Middle Ages, who handed down stories and legends in these poem-songs, using a structure of stanzas and repeated refrains to remember, retell and embellish local tales. Many of these folk ballads were collected in the 17th and 18th centuries by scholars like Harvard professor Francis James Child and poets like Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Two of the ballads in our collection are examples of this type of traditional ballad, anonymous retellings of local legends: the spooky fairy tale “Tam Lin” and “Lord Randall,” which reveals the story of a murder in the question-and-answer dialogue between a mother and son. Folk ballads also told love stories both tragic and happy, tales of religion and the supernatural, and recountings of historical events.

Most ballads are structured in short stanzas, often the quatrain form that has come to be known as “ballad measure”—alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (four stressed beats, da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM) and iambic trimeter (three stressed beats, da DUM da DUM da DUM), rhyming the 2nd and 4th lines of each stanza. Other ballads combine the four lines into two, forming rhymed couplets of seven-stress lines that are sometimes called “fourteeners.” But “ballad” is a general type of poem, not necessarily a fixed poetic form, and many ballad poems take liberties with the ballad stanza, or abandon it altogether.

After the 16th-century invention of inexpensive printing, ballads moved from the oral tradition onto newsprint. Broadside ballads were “poetry as news,” commenting on the events of the day—although many of the traditional folk ballads were also distributed as broadsides in print.

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.

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