Blame Not the Bard! The History and Evolution of the Ballad

What is a ballad?

A ballad is a narrative poem that can double as a song.

Traditionally, ballads relied on simplistic language and addressed topics such as romance, hardships, and tragedies. This commonality seems to be irrespective of geographical origins.

These poems rarely offer a direct message and allow the audience to create their own interpretations.

History of the ballad:

The tradition of the ballad began in provincial France c. 1100.

By the late 16th century, the ballad had gained popularity in the majority of European nations.

Conjectures about the development of ballad poetry are primarily split into two major schools of thought.

Communalists believe that the ballad evolved from a joint effort by artists, poets, and bards.

In contrast, Individualists posit that the ballad was developed out of archetypes (characters, actions, or situations which represent universal human behavior).

Because of a lack of literacy, ballads were initially passed down from generation to generation through the oral tradition. However, this style of poetry maintained popularity until the 18th century, so historians have a plethora of surviving ballads.

Structure of the ballad:


Quatrains (stanzas composed of 4 lines) are the main structural form of ballads.

Rhyme scheme:

Ballads typically follow an abcb or abab rhyme scheme. The letters are used to represent the end-rhyme.

“Brothers and men that shall after us be, [a]

Let not your hearts be hard to us: [b]

For pitying this our misery [a]

Ye shall find God the more piteous.” [b]

Excerpt from “Ballad of the Gibbet” by Francois Villon


Classically, the first and third lines of ballads are written in iambic tetrameter.

[Iambic tetrameter – when 4 iambs (or beats with a stressed and unstressed syllable) are placed together]

The second and fourth lines are written in trimeter (i.e. written with three beats per line)

Types of ballads:

1.) Stall ballad – a narrative verse written in a simple ballad form which is performed and recited in public places.

Also known as “slip song,” “street ballad,” and “broadside ballad.”

2.) Blues ballad – one of the last evolutionary movements of the ballad.

Also known as the blues.

3.) Bush ballad – narrative verse that specifically depicts the life, scenery and people of Australia.

4.) Fusion ballad – a light and simple ballad that deals with romance.

5.) Modern ballad – the latest remaining movement of ballad poetry, used in contemporary music.

Famous examples of ballads

Ballads written as poems:

“Ballad of the Gibbet” by Francois Villon

“The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John Keats

“The Kirk of Scotland’s Alarm: A Ballad” by Robert Burns

“A Ghost in the Night” by Nan Nichols

“The Walrus and the Carpenter” by Lewis Carroll

Ballads written as songs:

“More Than A Feeling” by Boston

“Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers

“Faithfully” by Journey

The Word Count is hosting a poetry contest throughout the month of July. Find out more on our Facebook page.

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