What Is a Ballad?

Derived from the medieval French term, chanson balladée, or “dancing song,” ballads are narrative poems that were originally set to music. They are part of a developing oral storytelling tradition, much like epic poems. Unlike the early epic poem, which celebrated great feats of valor by heroes who were above the common man — think Beowulf — ballads were originally love stories that described the plight of regular citizens using dialect and colloquial language.

Although the theme of love and loss has remained central to the ballad over the centuries, they have evolved be tragic, historical, or comic. The ballad experienced renewed popularity in the eighteenth century, when Romantic poets like John Keats used them to help create a gothic mood, but their popularity soon came to an end. Today, ballads are any slow song that tells a powerful story. Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” for instance, is a ballad.

How Do You Identify Ballads in Writing?

The traditional ballad is a narrative poem that tells a story using imagery rather than descriptions. The focus of the poem is a single dramatic event, such as the tragic death of a loved one. Because they were originally set to music, ballads have a musical rhythm created by using quatrains with alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, a form called ballad meter.

Examples of Ballad

Ballad Examples 1. John Keats’ poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” which tells the story of a knight enthralled with a mysterious lady, is a ballad set in medieval times.

Ballad Examples 2. Beyonce’s, “If I Were a Boy,” is a contemporary pop ballad.

Ballad Examples 3. Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, “Annabelle Lee,” is a ballad with a traditional theme — not even death can separate two lovers.

Ballad Examples 4. Rudyard Kipling’s 1892 poem, “Gunga Din,” a colonial tale of an Indian man who dies after saving a British soldier, contains many traditional aspects of the ballad, including colloquial language.

Ballad Examples 5. Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” a power ballad from the 1980s, is becoming canonized as one of the most popular songs of its generation.

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