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The Ballad: Definition, Types, and Characteristics

Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

The Ballad: definition, types and characteristics

The Ballad: definition, types and characteristics

Definition of Ballad

Before everything else, it is very important to throw light on the etymology of the word ballad. Etymologically, the word ballad has been taken from Latin word ballare, which means dancing song. Ballad is a shorter narrative poem which is comprised of short stanzas. F.B Gum has explained the definition of ballad as:

“a poem meant for singing, quite impersonal in material, probably connected in its origins with the communal dance but submitted to a process of oral traditions among people who are free from literary influences and fairly homogeneous in character.”

Ballad is a short story in verse, intended to be sung with musical accompaniment. It is opposite to the epic, which is a lengthy story in verse. It is a popular poem among the common folks Southern Appalachian Mountains of America.

What Is a Ballad?

Dr. Margaret Yocom defines ballad as:

"Is it defined by its form? by the way it tells a story? by who sings it? by the date of its composition or performance? Is a ballad identical to its text, and, if so, to which text? As you read, note the use of past or present tense, and note how many of these statements propose a cultural location for "ballad" and then cut away as "not ballad" all material that doesn't fit."

Characteristics of a Ballad

Characteristics of a ballad are as under:

  • Every ballad is a short story in verse, which dwells upon only one particular episode of the story. There is certainly only one episode of the story in a ballad, and the poet needs to complete the story within the limits of a small number of stanzas. John Keats’s ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci is an excellent example.
  • Another fundamental characteristic of a ballad is its universal appeal. Every single ballad touches upon a specific subject, which bears universal significance. It’s not simply restricted to his personality or his country; rather, it deals with the whole of humanity. John Keats’s ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci convinces the readers that most of the women are perfidious and double-crossing.
  • The use of colloquial language is an indispensable feature of a ballad. The poet tends to use day-to-day and commons words instead of bombastic and flowery language in the ballad. Read John Keats’s ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci to learn how the poet used colloquial language in his ballad.
  • Unlike other kinds of poems, the ballad has an abrupt and unexpected opening. The poem starts all of a sudden without providing any details about the subject matter. Similarly, the ending of many ballads may also be abrupt and unexpected.
  • There are no extra details about the surroundings, atmosphere or environment. The poem starts suddenly, and the reader has to visualize the setting himself through the poet's words. Thus ballads lack superfluous details.
  • Dialogue is also an indispensable feature of a ballad. The story is mostly told through dialogues. Look at John Keats’s ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci, which is a complete dialogue between the speaker and the knight.
  • Generally, in every ballad, there is a refrain. The refrain is a phrase or a line, which is repeated again and again after a stanza.
  • The poet tends to use stock phrases so that it may be easier to be memorized by the readers. That is why; every ballad is easier than any poem to be memorized.
  • The use of a ballad stanza is another remarkable characteristic of a ballad. Every ballad is written in a ballad stanza. The Ballad stanza is a stanza which consists of four lines with abcb rhyme scheme. There are four accented syllables in the first and third lines, while in the second and the fourth lines, there are three accented syllables.
  • The use of supernatural elements is an imperative feature of a ballad. Johan Keats and Coleridge’s ballads are the best examples in this regard.
  • Usually, the themes of most ballads are tragic, but it must be kept in mind that there are some ballads which are comic in nature.
  • Simplicity is an additional characteristic of a ballad. All ballads are simple in structure, style and diction, making them the most popular form of poetry. Look at the ballads of John Keats and Coleridge! They are very easy to be comprehended and remembered.

Types of Ballad

There are two kinds of ballads, which are discussed in details:

Folk or Traditional Ballad

Folk or traditional ballad is a kind of ballad, which was developed by anonymous poets in the ancient times and handed down to our generation by word of mouth. It has no written form. It is a verbal sort of poetry, which underwent reasonable changes during the course of time due to new circumstances and conditions. In every new age, it altered a lot and absorbed many traits of the contemporary age. Legouis asserts that “Like money in circulation it lost, little by little, its imprint; its salient curves were blunted; and long use gave it a polish it did not have originally.” The traditional ballad had no single author, rather; it was the product of many poets. It is pertinent to mention here that nobody knows about the author of the traditional ballads. The Nut-Brown Maid and Chevy Chase are excellent examples in this regard. Look at the first three stanzas of Chevy Chase:

Chevy Chase

GOD prosper long our noble king,

our liffes 1 and saftyes all!

A woefull hunting once there did

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in Cheuy Chase befall.

To driue the deere with hound and horne

Erle Pearcy took the way:

The child may rue that is vnborne

the hunting of that day!

The stout Erle of Northumberland

a vow to God did make

His pleasure in the Scottish woods

three sommers days to take.


Literary Ballad

Literary ballad is actually an imitation of the traditional ballad. The only difference between the two ballads is the authorship. The author of the literary ballad is a known personality, while the author of the traditional ballad is anonymous. The author of the traditional ballad may be a common man or a shepherd, villager or a farmer. Nobody knows about the real author of the traditional ballad. Moreover, time cannot bring about any change in the text of the literary ballad as t it is preserved in hard and soft copies. The poet is the legal owner of his ballads. Literary ballads are more polished and lengthy when compared with the traditional ballads. Literary ballads possess all the remaining features of the traditional ballad. John Keats, Samual Coleridge, Wordworth and many other poets excelled in balladry. For instance, look at John Keats’s ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci:

La Belle Dame sans Merci

O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has wither’d from the lake,

And no birds sing.

O 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 look’d 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 sigh’d fill sore,

And there I shut her wild wild eyes

With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,

And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!

The latest dream I ever dream’d

On the cold hill’s 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 wither’d from the lake,

And no birds sing.

(La Belle Dame sans Merci by John Keats)

© 2014 Muhammad Rafiq


Mr. Rajesh Sakharam Gore on July 25, 2020:

nice explanation...

Muhammad Salman on February 14, 2020:

Fantastic explanation.

Mudassir Zahid on October 19, 2019:

please you should write a notes on Accent as well ok

Ashedzi on October 15, 2019:

This article is jus complete,tons of thanks.

kamala paneru on September 25, 2019:

Extremely useful notes..almost everything about ballad is included..a bundle of thanks....

Madushani Weerakoon on July 23, 2019:

valuable and interesting facts.Thank you so much for sharing

Ama on June 11, 2019:

Its really helpful and informative

Thank you "knowledge they say is POWER"

Eve on May 24, 2019:

Its good

raising my standard on May 01, 2019:

best poet in my life

edefo on February 13, 2019:

Thank you. It was really useful.

Abdul azeez on January 10, 2019:

More knowledge and understanding Thanks it really helps

Shikha daksh on December 07, 2018:

Literally informative superb and well done .

Pabitra Behera on November 15, 2018:

Nice information .It is useful for me.

Saini on October 02, 2018:

Thanks for such information

Pradeep Chauhan on September 07, 2018:

I am very thankful to you for these lines are very important for succeed.

Somu p on August 10, 2018:

Tnx a lot for ur good information ,

Celeste Tunononng on July 22, 2018:

Thank you so much. Very useful information.

Luxana Dixon on July 10, 2018:

Thank you.Useful information

now i know my abc's on July 03, 2018:

all I needed to know is what type of people are typically in ballads please add this even thou I will never look at this site again

muni on May 30, 2018:

thank you. useful information

Shaliala on April 06, 2018:

The whole topic is conversational

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on March 22, 2018:

You are welcome!

umer akmal on March 12, 2018:

thank u

Samra Shah on February 08, 2018:

Thanks a lot Sir.....

Its really helpful and informative for us...

I expect more other useful posts regarding literature from you...

thank you

Bakht Samar Khan on January 31, 2018:

Very simple,helpful and informative..

Thanks Sir

TARIQ AMIN on October 21, 2017:

Thanks a lot is really helpful and informative post...i expect some other useful posts regarding literature from you...thank you

fahr khan on October 17, 2017:


Miyu on July 31, 2017:

Thanks for the useful information!

Krishna sudha on July 28, 2017:

Valid information, it is very interesting to read it is in very simple language thanks sir

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on June 30, 2017:

You are welcome!

shashi welagedara. on June 30, 2017:

Thanks is very imformative

hamad on December 18, 2016:

very good job

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on November 20, 2016:

You are welcome, Mehwish!

Mehwish on November 19, 2016:

Thank you so much for giving us such a broad knowledge. Thanks for help.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on November 16, 2015:

Thanks Waleed for your comments. I am glad it helped you.

Waleed on November 16, 2015:

wow it's really good , I got many knowledge from this. Thanks for Hub

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 24, 2014:

Thanks FlourishAnyway for your continued interest and encouragement! I'm glad that you liked it. Have a blessed and sweet scented time!

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 24, 2014:

Fabulous job, not only with the writing but the addition of that very compelling video. It was a must watch and added greatly. Voted up and more.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 18, 2014:

Thanks MG Singh for your comments! Have a nice weekend!

MG Singh from UAE on April 18, 2014:

Nice hub.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 18, 2014:

Thanks one2get2no for stopping by! I am glad that you enjoyed it. Thanks for following me! Remain blessed.

Philip Cooper from Olney on April 18, 2014:

Thanks for the hub...very informative.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 17, 2014:

Thank you very much jhamann for your comments and encouragement! Have a nice time!

Jamie Lee Hamann from Reno NV on April 17, 2014:

These last couple hubs have been well researched, not only informational but entertaining as well. Jamie

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