Fractal Myth

Reading Poetry - the Ballad Genre.

[Michelle Chapman ©1996]

The ballad genre has evolved from medieval (and even earlier) oral traditions. It is storytelling in verse, incorporating the ritualistic, magical elements of ancient myths and folklore. Traditionally, the "teller, singer or poet would have been a kind of magician, a mediator between the other world and this world,"(1) and this emerges in the ballad theme of the supernatural. The main purpose of the ballad genre is to entertain, by telling a dramatic story in a simple, direct style, focussing on a single episode or story, without side plots, or incidental description. The narrator is conventionally removed from the action, and the story unfolds through dramatisation and dialogue.

Central to the conventions of the genre is the ballad stanza, consisting of quatrains of alternating four-stress (tetrameter) lines, and three-stress (trimeter) lines. The simple rhyme scheme has proved remarkably stable over time, retaining two common variations, 'abcb' and 'abab', which echo the oral and musical origins of the ballad tradition. These origins of the ballad genre are also emphasised by repetition in the ballads, with incremental repetition of lines and stanzas forming an almost musical refrain. Internal rhyme is extensively used within lines and stanzas, and alliteration and assonance add to the mood, and ease of recitation of the poem. The language is simple and colloquial, interspersed with archaic words, but showing little use of elaborate figures of speech. The imagery is familiar, forming a 'ballad cliche', and characterisation is minimal, with no explanation given of a character's motives or actions.

There are two basic categories within the ballad genre. These are the traditional, or folk ballad, and the literary ballad. Traditional ballads are anonymous, and have been handed down through generations in the oral tradition of story telling. 'The Wife of Usher's Well'(2) is an example of a traditional, anonymous ballad. The literary ballad is a variation of the ballad genre, the result of a poet's deliberate adoption of the ballad metre and style in his composition. Examples include 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'(3), written by Keats in 1819, and Lewis Carroll's 'Jabberwocky'(4), written in 1871.

One of the most common conventions in the ballad genre is the use of supernatural subject matter. 'The Wife Of Usher's Well' tells the story of a mother whose three sons are shipwrecked. The strength of her grief brings them back to earth as revenants, but they may only stay for one night. The material is drawn from legend and folklore, including the grieving mother's curse:

I wish the wind may never cease,
Nor fashes in the flood,
Till my three sons come hame to me,
In earthly flesh and blood

and the penalty the boys will incur if they do not return to heaven at dawn:

Gin we be missed out o' our place,
A sair pain we maun bide.

The story is told in twelve ballad stanzas, rhyming 'abcb', and in colloquial folk language, with many archaic words.

The narrator is impersonal, and the story follows the ballad convention of an abrupt opening, where the reader is plunged directly into the action with no explanation or description.

There lived a wife at Usher's Well,
And a wealthy wife was she;
She had three stout and stalwart sons,
And she sent them o'er the sea.

This stanza also shows the simple characterisation of the ballad genre. The characters are described using stock epithets, and no motive is given for their actions.

Repetition plays an important part in the ballad, giving the story its lyric quality. The incremental repetition of:

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely ane,
When word came to the carlin wife
That her three sons were gane.

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely three,
When word came to the carlin wife
That her sons she'd never see.

advances the action, showing the mother's gradual realisation of her loss, without explaining the exact fate of the boys. This ballad convention increases the dramatic tension, and allows the plot to cover several weeks in a few lines. Repetition is also used as a mnemonic device,

Up then crew the red, red cock,
And up and crew the grey

as is the extensive use of rhyme, alliteration and assonance:

The cock doth craw, the day doth daw,
The channerin worm doth chide

This is carried over from the oral origin of the ballad genre, where such devices aided the bard in recitation, and in memorising the poem.

The mother's curse is the first use of dialogue in this ballad, conveying in few words the mother's grief. Such a curse, especially one made by a bereaved mother, is a powerful plot element in folklore, as is the motif of ghosts returning to comfort their grieving relatives. The symbolic, ritualistic origin of ballads is shown by the dead boys returning at "Martinmass", the Christian feast day of a martyred Pope, wearing symbols of their new life in heaven - "their hats were o' the birk" which grew only "at the gates o' Paradise".

The ballad convention of dramatic description, rather than a summary of events, is shown in the mother's preparations to welcome her sons home.

Blow up the fire, my maidens,
Bring water from the well;
For a' my house shall feast this night
Since my three sons are well.

We see the mother's joy at her sons return, and the bustle of celebration, but we also know that her sons are not "well". The mother's hope against hope, and refusal to believe that her sons are no longer "earthly flesh and blood" is not stated explicitly, but shown through her cheerful preparations.

The ballad ends with a dialogue between the eldest and the youngest sons. This finishes the poem in a climax of pathos, as the youngest son bids goodbye to his mother and his home, using repetition of traditional phrases. The note of romance, introduced with his goodbye to his sweetheart, makes the tragic moment even more poignant.

Fare ye weel, my mother dear!
Fareweel to barn and byre!
And fare ye weel, the bonny lass,
That kindles my mother's fire!

'La Belle Dame Sans Merci', by Keats, is a ballad created in the form of the fifteenth century ballads to give an archaic, supernatural effect. It tells the story of an encounter between a mortal and a supernatural being, and the blighted life that follows this encounter. It, too, is written in twelve quatrains, rhyming 'abcb'. It departs from the traditional ballad stanza, however, with the first three lines of each stanza being tetrameter (having four stresses) while the last line is in trimeter (with three stresses). This gives each stanza the sense of being unfinished, or precipitately broken off.

The poem starts abruptly, with an introductory question from an unidentified, objective narrator. This introduces the knight and plunges us directly into the desolate, lifeless scenery of the knight's landscape.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

After the third stanza the narrative shifts to the knight's point of view, as he describes his experiences. This departure from the traditional ballad form gives the narrative a sense of personal immediacy. It also incorporates the ballad convention of a story told through description and dialogue, as the poem becomes a conversation between the narrator and the "knight-at-arms".

At the end of the poem, the knight's narrative echoes the introductory stanzas, answering the narrator's question. The incremental repetition of the stanza frames the ballad, and the change of perspective: "the sedge is withered", emphasising the cyclical nature of the knight's experience, as well as his now perpetual existence in the winter of the shadow-land, between mortal and fairy, and between life and death.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake
And no birds sing.

The language of the ballad is simple, with extensive use of archaic words:

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,

giving the poem a Medieval feel, as well as a Gothic literary flavour. This is also emphasised by the use of ballad cliche:

Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

The ballad convention of simple characterisation is followed, with no explanation of the knight's identity, or actions, or even what, exactly, has happened to him. The repetition of the words, particularly 'pale', follows the ballad convention, and shows the horrifying nature of the knight's dream:

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' also employs the ballad convention of using contrast to enforce description. There is the contrast between the knight's haggard, mortally ill appearance, and the ethereal beauty of the fairy; between the idyllic enchantment of the meeting:

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For side-long would she bend, and sing
A faery's song.

and the lady's unexplained tears: "And there she wept and sighed full sore"; and finally, between this first meeting and the horror and melancholy of the dream, where:

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gap?d wide.

Unlike traditional ballads, 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' has very little rhyming within the stanzas. It is mainly confined to simple rhymes at the end of the second and fourth lines of each stanza. However, there is extensive use of alliteration, "long ... light", "made ... moan", and assonance, "O ... alone ... no ... woe-begone", which is continued throughout the ballad to give it its melancholy effect and eerie, haunting atmosphere. The atmosphere is emphasised by the supernatural and exotic subject matter, with its mixture of Classical and Medieval imagery. The "full beautiful" lady suggests the sirens of Classical mythology, who lured heroes to their doom, while the "fragrant zone" has the power of the legendary scented girdle of Venus. The stage properties of Medievalism enforce the dramatic quality of the story, in the world of the "knight-at-arms", where beauty and death are portrayed by a "faery" enchantress. This imagery also echoes the ritualistic, magic origins of the ballad tradition, here transposed into a dreamlike environment.

Lewis Carroll's 'Jabberwocky' has been called "a parody of the whole ballad way of writing".(5) According to the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, parody requires "a subtle balance between close resemblance to the 'original' and a deliberate distortion of its principal characteristics".(6) Lewis Carroll achieves this through a combination of ballad convention with invented nonsense elements, and by distorting the traditional folklore and legendary stories common to the ballad genre.

'Jabberwocky' consists of seven quatrains, using both ballad rhyme schemes, 'abab' and 'abcb'. Instead of alternating four-stress and three-stress lines, four of the stanzas use the 'abab' rhyme scheme, while three use 'abcb'. The poem also uses the same pattern of stresses as 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci', with the first three lines of each stanza in tetrameter, and the last line in trimeter.

The language is a mixture of the simple, colloquial style of the traditional ballads, and Lewis Carroll's nonsense words, while the protagonist of 'Jabberwocky' is a very Victorian hero, as real ballad heroes act, rather than think:

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought-
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

The invented words give an archaic feel to the poem, and as Carroll was expressly writing to delight his audience of children, the unfamiliar words increase the excitement of the story. When Alice first sees the poem it seems to be "all in some language I don't know".(7) This is partly because it is a looking-glass poem, and has to be held up to a mirror to be read. It is usual for the first stanza of 'Jabberwocky' to be printed in reverse. This, plus the ingenious nature of "Humpty Dumpty's Explication" of the difficult words, shows Carroll's inventiveness and creativity in combining the familiar and the strange.

"Well, 'toves' are something like badgers - they're something like corkscrews."
"They must be very curious creatures."(8)

It is the nature of the traditional, supernatural ballad, and of parody, to combine everyday familiar elements with the unknown. Carroll also mixes the archaic language of the ballad convention with invented words that sound as if they could conceivably be archaic:

And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms my beamish boy!

Although less numerous than in traditional ballads, there is still repetition of words to give a cumulative effect: "One, two! One, two! And through and through," and incremental repetition of lines:

And stood awhile in thought
And as in uffish thought he stood

Carroll also follows the ballad convention of repeated stanzas that form a refrain. The first stanza provides the abrupt beginning of the ballad style, immediately transporting us into the fantasy world of the Jabberwock. The stanza is repeated at the end of the poem, forming a frame. The rhymes are simple, and rhyming within lines is used mainly in the third line of each 'abcb' stanza:

Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

There is also extensive use of alliteration, and softened consonants.

In accordance with ballad convention, the narrator is impersonal, objective and removed from the action, and the story is told through narration, and dialogue, with addresses from a father to his son:

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

There is very little characterisation, with almost no description of the hero, or the monster, except for a few ballad cliches: "The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame". The subject matter of the poem is a distortion of legendary, folk-lore quests, in which the hero must slay the dragon with an enchanted weapon:

He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back

This is not traditionally considered heroic behaviour, and the dragon is not the monster of traditional expectations, as it:

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

These three very different poems illustrate the flexibility of the ballad genre. 'The Wife of Usher's Well' is a founding poem of the genre. It exists in many versions, due to the imprecise nature of oral repetition, and is a perfect start for a consideration of the genre as a whole. It follows the basic ballad conventions, including the ballad stanza, the unaffected and archaic language, the use of repetition and rhyme, and the single, dramatic storyline. Keats adopted the ballad form for 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' as it gave him the freedom of a style distanced from the majority of Romantic poetry. The uncluttered nature of the ballad form allowed the beauty of his words and imagery to shine through, and the form was traditionally used for supernatural subject matter. For Lewis Carroll, the ballad form offered a style remote from everyday life, traditionally used to tell a story for entertainment. Its simplicity and archaic language were the ideal vehicle for his nonsense words, and it has been translated and proved popular in many languages, all over the world. The ballad genre, with its origins in oral tradition, and its magical connections to myth and folklore, is, therefore, adaptable to a variety of stories and purposes.


1. Preminger, A. (eds.) Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.
2. Norton Anthology, p.76.
3. Norton Anthology, p.685.
4. Norton Anthology, p.825.
5. Friedman, A. The Ballad Revival.
6. Cuddon, J.A. Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory.
7. Carroll, L. (Norton Anthology p.825).
8. Carroll, L. Through the Looking-Glass Chapter 3 (Norton Anthology p.826).


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Marker's comments.

82% - A very capable discussion, with well chosen texts.

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