"Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does."  
 -Allen Ginsberg

"You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you're merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that's always easiest."

In conjunction with our unit on literature, we study the ballad form of poetry. If class time allows, we create montages to illustrate diverse ballads and, individually or with classmates (the choice is yours), we compose original ballads based on news events, social concerns, myths, and legends.


Ballads have existed for centuries, initially were not written down, but were passed down orally from one generation to the next. Many scholars point to the European folk tradition of the Middle Ages as the origin of the ballad. Others maintain that the genre is much older, dating as far back as the fifth millenium BCE, with roots in Eastern Europe and parts of the Orient.

The term "ballad" comes from the French word "ballade," a French verse form consisting of three eight-line stanzas with the same rhyming pattern and a four-line envoi (refrain).
In general we can define a ballad as a narrative poem with a straightforward, dramatic action, often meant to be sung. The language is simple to understand and sometimes written in the dialect of the region from which the ballad originates (see the first example below). Their themes are closely tied to those of the storytelling tradition. They typically concern hardship and suffering, tragedy, love, romance, murder, religious concerns and social injustices. While many ballads focus on tragedy, comic ballads do exist.

Ballads usually begin with little or no explanation of context or characters. The stanzas, varying in number and sometimes numerous, can move from one incident to another with little or no commentary. They often contain dialogue, the repetition of key elements, and refrains at regular intervals.

While the length of the ballad and the number of lines in the stanzas can vary, traditional ballads contain stanzas of four lines, called quatrains. The traditional rhyme scheme of the quatrain is ABCB (the second and fourth lines rhyme) or ABAB (alternating lines rhyme). The first and third lines of traditional ballads have four feet (iambic tetrameter); the second and fourth lines have three feet (iambic trimeter). Each unit of stressed and unstressed syllables is called a "foot." "Iambic" is a slightly stressed syllable followed by a heavily stressed syllable. Here are two examples of the traditional ballad format:

Rise up, rise up, my seven brave sons,
And dress in your armour so bright;
Earl Douglas will hae Lady Margaret awa
Before that it be light.

(opening stanza of one variation of the ballad "Earl Brand")

They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand
They danced by the light of the moon.

(from Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussycat")

The audience is complicit in the story of the ballad. Instead of overtly stating any moral lesson to be learned, the ballad leaves it open to the listener-reader.


Choose one of the ballads from the list further down on this page. Read the ballad (or listen to it attentively, if that's an option), then answer the following questions:

1. What kind of ballad is it? (traditional or literary)
2. Who is the intended audience of the ballad?
3. Who are the characters? 
4. Is there a dialogue between the characters, or is the story told by a first person or third person objective voice only?
5. What are the main points of the storyline?
6. How many stanzas are there? 
7. What is the rhyme scheme? (abcb? abab? varied?)
8. Is there a refrain? If so, what is it? 
9. Identify examples of alliteration, if there are any used in the ballad.
10. Identify any metaphors.
11. What images does the story evoke?
12. What is the theme of the ballad? 
13. What visual images would you use to illustrate the theme of this ballad-poem? Why?
14. What kind of musical illustration would you use? Why?
15. Why does this ballad appeal to you? What about it, if anything, calls you to attentiveness?

The Ballad of Reading Gaol here
by Oscar Wilde

John Barleycorn: A Ballad here
by Robert Burns

The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman here
by William Wordsworth

Tom Dooley
murder ballad dating back to 1929, sung 
here by the Kingston Trio
Read the story and listen to other renditions here

Lord Randall here
traditional Anglo-Scottish murder ballad (anonymous) 
performed here by Giordano Dall'Armellina
and here by Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer

Down in the Willow Garden (also known as Rose Connelly
traditional Appalachian murder ballad
performed here by The Chieftains and Bon Iver
here by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
here by Norah Jones and Billie Joe
and here by The Everley Brothers
Question to consider: What about this ballad continues to attract artists to perform it over the decades?
Read the lyrics here.

The Lily of the West
traditional Irish folk ballad, American version performed here by Joan Baez
and here by Bob Dylan

The Highwayman
narrative ballad-poem by Alfred Noyes, set in 18th century England
read here
and/or listen here, interpreted by Loreena McKennitt on her album, The Book of Secrets

Jabberwocky here
by Lewis Carroll, from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There 
performed by Donovan here
and by the 3Ds here

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

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

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.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
      And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
      The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
      He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
      Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
      He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

Annabel Lee
by Edgar Allan Poe
recited here by actor Basil Rathbone
performed here by two sisters
and here by Stevie Nicks

It was many and many a year ago,
   In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
   By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
   Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
   In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
   I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
   Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
   In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
   My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
   And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
   In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
   Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
   In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
   Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
   Of those who were older than we—
   Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
   Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
   Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
   In her sepulchre there by the sea—
   In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Frog Went A-Courtin'

ballad dating back to the 16th century
(There are many versions of this old English ballad. The following lyrics are from Bruce Springsteen.)
performed here by Bruce Springstein,
here by Woodie Guthrie,
here by Tex Ritter,
here by Elizabeth Mitchell,
here by the Muppets, 
and here by Bob Dylan.

Mr Froggy went a-courtin' and he did ride, uh-huh
Mr Froggy went a-courtin' and he did ride, uh-huh
Froggy went a-courtin' and he did ride
A sword and pistol by his side, uh- huh, uh-huh, uh-huh

He went down to Miss Mousie's door, uh-huh
He went down to Miss Mousie's door, uh-huh
He went down to Miss Mousie's door
Where he had often been before, uh huh, uh-huh, uh-huh

He took Miss Mousie up on his knee, uh-huh
Said "Miss Mousie will you marry me?" uh huh
"Without my Uncle Rat's consent
I wouldn't marry the President," uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh


Well Uncle Rat he gave his consent, uh-huh
Hey Uncle Rat he gave his consent, uh-huh
Now Uncle Rat he gave his consent
And the weasel wrote the publishment, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh

Well now where will the wedding supper be? Uh-huh
Where will the wedding supper be? Uh-huh
Well where will the wedding supper be?
Way down yonder in a hollow tree, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh

Come on Soozie!


Yeah the first come in was a flying moth, uh-huh
First come in was a flying moth, uh-huh
First come in was a flying moth
Who laid out the tablecloth, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh

Well the next to come in was a junie bug, uh-huh
The next to come in was a junie bug, uh-huh
Next to come in was a junie bug
She brought the whiskey in a water jug, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh


Next come in was a big black snake, uh-huh
Next come in was a big black snake, uh-huh
Next come in was a big black snake
Chased them all into the lake, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh

Little piece of cornbread laying on a shelf, uh-huh
Little piece of cornbread laying on a shelf, uh-huh
Little piece of cornbread laying on a shelf
If you want any more, you can sing it yourself, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh

Yip, go

The Vinegar Man
by Ruth Comfort Mitchell
performed here by The 3Ds

The crazy old Vinegar Man is dead! He never had missed a day before!
Somebody went to his tumble-down shed by the Haunted House and forced the door.

There in the litter of his pungent pans,
the murky mess of his mixing place
Deep, sticky spiders and empty cans
with the same old frown on his sour old face.

Vinegar - Vinegar - Vinegar Man!
Face - us - and - chase - us - and - catch - if -you - can!
Pepper for a tongue! Pickle for a nose!

Stick a pin in him and vinegar flows!
Glare -at-us- swear -at-us- catch - if - you-can!
Ketchup - and - chow - chow - and -Vinegar -Man!

Nothing but recipes and worthless junk;
greasy old records of paid and due
But down in the depths of a battered trunk,
a queer, quaint Valentine torn in two?

Red hearts and arrows and silver lace,
and a prim, dim, ladylike script that said
"With dearest love, from Ellen to Ned!"

Steal - us - and - peel - us - and - drown - us -in - brine!
He pickles his heart in a valentine!
Vinegar for blood! Pepper for his tongue!
Stick a pin in him and
...once he was young!

Glare -at-us- swear -at-us- catch - if - you - can!
"With dearest love" to the Vinegar Man!

Dingy little books of profit and loss
(died about Saturday, so they say),
And a queer, quaint valentine torn across . . .

torn, but it never was thrown away!
"With dearest love from Ellen to Ned"

"Old Pepper Tongue! Pickles his heart in brine!"
The Vinegar Man is a long time dead:

he died when he tore his valentine.


The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Read the literary ballad, with illustrations by Gustav Doré, here.

Listen to Orson Welles read the tale here

and to Richard Burton, Robert Hardy, and John Neville here.

                                                                                                                                          Arthur Rackham's illustration of the ballad "The Twa Corbies"

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