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Poetry Competitions UK
14 Jun 2011

How to Write a Ballad

The Ballad first began as a song that tells a story to the listener. These were passed from generation to generation in their musical form. There was a clearly defined growth in the Ballad's popularity in the fifteenth century mainly due to the ability to print them on broadsheets, which would then be sold at fairs and markets.

There are two main forms of Ballads: traditional and street. Although there is no chronological evidence to support it, it is believed that the traditional form is the earliest of the two versions. Somewhat idiosyncratic, the Ballad has more emphasis on its narrative opposed to a complex structure. The progression of this form has shown many changes in style. Whereas, originally the content was heroic, it soon adapted that the characters would become comical, and the heroes therein were made a mockery of.

Below is a copy of 'The Twa Corbies', or as it is more commonly known - The Three Ravens. Here the rhyme is clearly marked as well as the emphasis on certain words within the stanza.

The Twa Corbies

As I was walking all alane
I heard twa corbies making a mane
The tane unto the t'other say
'Where sall we gang and dine today?'
'-In behint you auld fail dyke,
I wot ther kues a bew-slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound and his lady fair.
His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady ta'en another mate,
So we may make our dinner sweet.
Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I'll pick out his bonnyblue een:
Wi' ae locko' his gowden hair
We'll theek our nest when it grows bare.
mony a one for him makes Mane,
But nen sall ken where he is gane;
o'er his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind shall blaw for evermair.'

In 'The Twa Corbies' there is a distinctive stanza form, with each line containing four stresses and a rhyming pattern of aabb. These are not restrictive forms and there are several variations that can be followed:

  • The fourth stress from lines one and three can be dropped.
  • Internal rhyme can be added to lines one and three so that the second and fourth stresses in the line rhyme.
  • The form can be changed to a four-line stanza with four stresses in each, known as the long meter.
  • The form can be altered to a four-lined stanza with three stresses in each, known as the short meter.

Although it sounds complex, the Ballad is one of the most satisfying poetic forms to accomplish. So have a try! We look forward to reading your submissions.

Once you've written your poem, why not send it to us to be entered into our competition - You can send via post to: Forward Poetry, Remus House, Coltsfoot Drive, Peterborough PE2 9BF, or email it to inbox@forwardpoetry.co.uk.

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