What is a Ballad? – Definition & Examples

Let’s learn about the poetical form of the ballad and examine two of the most famous English ballads. We will learn about the common traits of ballads and how they relate to modern music.
A ballad is a type of poem that is sometimes set to music. Ballads have a long history and are found in many cultures. The ballad actually began as a folk song and continues today in popular music. Many love songs today can be considered ballads.
A typical ballad consists of stanzas that contain a quatrain, or four poetic lines. The meter or rhythm of each line is usually iambic, which means it has one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. In ballads, there are usually eight or six syllables in a line. Like any poem, some ballads follow this form and some don’t, but almost all ballads are narrative, which means they tell a story.
Because the ballad was originally set to music, some ballads have a refrain, or a repeated chorus, just like a song does. Similarly, the rhyme scheme is often ABAB because of the musical quality of this rhyme pattern.
While ballads have always been popular, it was during the Romantic movement of poetry in the late 18th century that the ballad had a resurgence and became a popular form. Many famous romantic poets, like William Wordsworth, wrote in the ballad form.
One famous ballad is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was written in 1797 and is the story of a sailor who has returned from a long voyage. Let’s look at a couple of the poem’s stanzas, or groups of lines, and discuss why this poem is a ballad.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner begins with the sailor telling his story to a stranger, called the Wedding-Guest, who is on his way to a wedding. The sailor says:
The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.
The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.
In the first stanza, the sailor talks about how the ship set off and began its journey. In the second stanza, it continues the journey as the sun sets and rises.
Here, the sailor is telling us a story about what happened at sea, so this is a narrative. The poem is also arranged in quatrains, which are four-line stanzas. The rhyme scheme is also ABAB. Can you hear the song-like quality in these lines?
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