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Simplistic structures made ballads a particularly popular form of poetry in medieval times. Ballads form the backbone of many folk cultures. Of particular popularity was the ability of the form to be remembered because of its songlike sounds, the limited detail and colloquial language used. It is interesting to note that the word ballad has the same roots as the word ballet, from the French ballade, or dancing song. As a result, we can often determine interesting implications about the customs and practices of the societies and communities in which particular ballads were written.

A ballad is essentially a narrative written in verse. They tell of heroes, of battles between good and evil and kings and queens. Traditional ballads generally do not contain complex language features or obscure allusions. Traditional ballads have often been passed down orally and as a result their original composers are often unknown.

Literary ballads, on the other hand, often do contain complex language features and allusions. Literary ballads are those ballads written by poets whom we generally associate with more complex poetic techniques. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a famous example of an artistic poet employing the structure of a ballad.


While of an indeterminate length, ballads are usually written in four-line stanzas or quatrains. These have a rhyme scheme of ABAB. Another feature of ballads is a repeating chorus or phrase that gives the poem cohesion.

The narrative structure, or what parts of a story are told where, is loose. Generally, there is very little background or introduction given to the characters. This is partly because ballads are plot driven, and partly because the audiences of traditional ballads would already have known the story in general. The success of a traditional ballad within its time would have been the success of the balladeer choosing to elaborate upon the parts of the story that would appeal to a particular audience. Add to this the fact that ballads were often passed on orally. As a result, parts of the stories would have been forgotten and other parts added in.


Iambs are used in the quatrains of a ballad. An 'iamb' (pronounced eye - am) is known as a foot. This foot consists of an unstressed and a stressed syllable. Generally the notation of stressed and unstressed syllables is: for unstressed an 'x'; and a '/' for stressed. An example will demonstrate how this works.

'In Scarlet town where I was born'

Say this out loud and tap your foot in time to the rhythm. Click on the audio file In Scarlet Town to hear how it should sound.

This is how the stresses would be noted:

x / x / x / x /

In Scarlet town where I was born

An iamb is one grouping of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The following example demonstrates how this line is broken down into iambs:

x /

x / x / x /
In Scar - let town where I was born

Notice that there are four iambs in this line. In a quatrain in a ballad, the first and third lines contain four iambs while the second and fourth lines contain three iambs:

x / x / x / x /
In Scarlet town where I was born
x / x / x /
There was a fair maid dwellin'
x / x / x / x /
Made every youth cry, 'Well-a-day!'
x / x / x /
Her name was Barbara Allen.

Say this out loud and tap your foot in time to the rhythm.

The following animation will demonstrate an analysis of a ballad.


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