rhyme and are written in iambic tetrameter, while the second and fourth lines rhyme and
are written in iambic trimeter.
When you first hear the word “ballad,” you may think of music instead of poetry. The two
art forms certainly overlap and have the same origin. However, we would like to
concentrate on the ballad as a poetic form that developed from a rich European folk
tradition of storytelling through song. Musical and poetic ballads share many
characteristics: Both usually contain dialogue and refrain and move quickly to the climax of
the story through a series of incidents or vignettes.
A vignette is a short literary sketch or description.
Major poets such as John Keats and W.H. Auden have, through their work, helped the
literary ballad to gain a separate and important identity as a major poetic form. Below is a
traditional folk ballad with more musical than poetic characteristics, “Frankie and Johnny,”
for comparison with a literary ballad by Keats.
From Frankie and Johnny
Frankie and Johnny were lovers,
Lordy, how they could love,
Swore to be true to each other,
True as the stars up above
He was her man, but he done her wrong.
Frankie went down to the corner,
To buy her a bucket of beer,
Frankie says, “Mister Bartender,
Has my lovin’ Johnny been here?
He is my man, but he’s doing me wrong.”
“I don’t want to cause you no trouble
Don’t want to tell you no lie,
I saw your Johnny half-an-hour ago
Making love to Nellie Bly.
He is your man, but he's doing you wrong.”
Frankie went down to the hotel
Looked over the transom so high,
There she saw her lovin’ Johnny
Making love to Nelly Bly.
He was her man but he's doing her wrong
Frankie threw back her kimono,
Pulled out her big forty-four;
Rooty-toot-toot: three times she shot
Right through that hotel door,
She shot her man, who was doing her wrong.
“Roll me over gently,
Roll me over slow,
Roll me over on my right side,
‘Cause these bullets hurt me so,
I was your man, but I done you wrong.”
—Anonymous (19th century)
In the following poem, the title translates to “The Beautiful Woman without Pity” (French).
The poem is presented in the manner that Keats first wrote it.
Original version of La Belle Dame sans Merci
Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest's done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful - a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery's song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said -
'I love thee true'.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed - Ah! woe betide! -
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried - 'La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!'
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill's side.
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
—John Keats (1819)
These two ballads have common elements: a refrain, different speakers to relate the
events, and stylized language.
Stylized language differs from natural speech to convey information about the persona,
setting, and tone of poem.
The differences lie in the way they use descriptive language and in their focus.
“Frankie and Johnny” tells a tale of infidelity that reaches its climax when Frankie shoots
Johnny. This could have come from the front page of any newspaper. Although it tells an
exciting story, nothing in it is so unusual as to separate it from the everyday life of our
society. On the other hand, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” tells a tale that seems
unwholesomely gloomy and far removed from the scope of our normal experience. Purely
descriptive lines enrich this morbid and supernatural quality. For example, lines such as
“Pale warriors, death-pale were they all” and “With anguish moist and fever dew” do
nothing to move the story along; they exist only as description. We find no such purely
descriptive line in “Frankie and Johnny”; in fact, we find few descriptive words.
Musical ballads, like “Frankie and Johnnie,” focus almost exclusively on dialogue and
action. They often relate nothing more than a simple chain of events. By leaving out any
description that does not advance the plot, musical ballads can cover more ground, in a
storytelling sense. This form works especially well if you aim to tell a long, action-packed
tale with several characters, or if you would like to concentrate on a single dramatic event
and its impact on various speakers.
Literary ballads, unlike musical ballads, concern themselves with theme. In “La Belle Dame
sans Merci” you can find Keats’s devotion to the theme that love is intertwined with death,
rather than an emotion that can conquer it. As well, we know that the Keats family suffered
devastating losses from tuberculosis, a disease at that time deadly, which caused its
victims to slowly waste away. Keats watched both his mother and his younger brother die
of tuberculosis before succumbing to it himself at age 25; we certainly can see the similarity
between the pale, ailing knight-at-arms and the young poet, writing in the lingering shadow
of his death. “No one can read Keats’s poems and letters without an under-sense of the
tragic waste of so extraordinary an intellect and genius cut off so early” (M.H. Abrams, ed.,
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2, New York, NY: W.W. Norton &
Company, Inc., 1986, 796).
Formally, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” represents a picture-perfect ballad, fulfilling every
condition of the definition. Now we will look at a slightly altered take on the ballad form.
Here, the poet imitates the ballad in several ways but turns aside from a strict definition of
the form. W.H. Auden, who wrote between World Wars I and II, clearly gained inspiration
from the ballad but changed it to suit his needs.
As I Walked Out One Evening
As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.
And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
"Love has no ending.
"I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till China and Afica meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street.
"I'll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.
"The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world."
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
"O let not Time deceive you
You cannot conquer Time.
"In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
"In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.
"Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver's brilliant bow.
"O plunge your hands in water
Plunge them up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed."
"The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
"Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer
And Jill goes down on her back."
"O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless."
"O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart."
It was late, late in the evening
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.
—W.H. Auden (1940)
Auden has used four-line stanzas, as is called for in the ballad form. Though he does not
follow exactly the typical pattern of alternating lines of Iambic tetrameter and iambic
trimeter, he does come close to the rhythm of a proper ballad. If you scan this poem and
compare your results with a scansion of the more traditional examples of ballads, you will
see how the meter of this poem varies from the meter of “Frankie and Johnnie” or “la Belle
Dame sans Merci.”
Auden remains faithful to the ballad’s traditional thyme scheme (abcb defe and so forth)
but fails to use a refrain. He uses dialogue and different speakers (the persona who
begins an ends the poem, the singing lover, the chiming clocks of the city), but he does not
so much relate a dramatic event as he portrays an epiphany the persona experiences.
The dialogue ends between the cynical clocks and optimistic lover, and the river flows as it
did before their dialogue began. It is at this moment that the persona experiences his
epiphany. He sees that neither our belief in human goodness and sincerity (as symbolized
by the singing lover) nor our disbelief in them (as symbolized by the chiming clocks) can
affect our fate. Mankind has neither grown better nor worse. We love as we have; we
despair as we have. Ultimately, nothing has changed: “It was late, late in the evening, /
The lovers they were gone; / The clocks had ceased their chiming, / And the deep river ran
NOTE: A strict observer of formal rules would not call Auden’s poem a ballad. He broke the
rules. However, in his defense, he did so because he did know the rules, and as a master
of poetry who knows the rules, he also knows how to break them. Learning the rules is the
first step in poetic innovation.
The next time you watch your favorite television show, take notes on the episode, paying
close attention to the climactic moment, when you feel most interested or excited. Then,
write a ballad in no more than five four-line stanzas depicting the events leading up to that
moment. If you really want to experiment, write a ballad in each of the following:
• Dialogue between different speakers.
• A stress pattern alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter (4 3 4 3).
• A rhyme scheme of abcb defe ghih etc.
• A refrain
next: Terza rima