By Muhammad Faseeh ul Hassan

The word derives from the late Latin and Italian word ballare which means ‘to dance’. Fundamentally, a ballad is a song that tells a story and originally was a musical accompaniment to a dance. Ballad is a narrative poem of four line stanzas called as Quatrain and has the rhyming scheme ABAB. It was a song or a collection of songs sung by wandering singers from place to place, which was their source of earning. One of the main objective of the ballads is to entertain audience and excite emotions in them, by narrating a complex tale into simpler one. Language used in ballads is formalized and conventional. 


  • The beginning is often abrupt.
  • The language is simple.
  • Actions and dialogues are used to tell the story.
  • The theme is often tragic (though there are number of comic ballads).
  • There is often a refrain.

To these features we may add: a ballad usually deals with a single episode; the events leading to the crisis are related swiftly; there is minimal detail o surroundings; there is strong dramatic element; there is considerable intensity and immediacy in the narration; the narrator remain impersonal; stock, well-tried epithets are used in the oral tradition of kennings and Homeric epithets; the single line of action and the speed of the story preclude much attempt at delineation of character.

Kinds of Ballad

We may distinguish further between two kinds of ballad; the folk or popular ballad and literary ballad.

The writer of the folk ballad is anonymous and is transmitted from singer to singer by words of mouth. It thus belongs to the oral tradition. The folk ballad exists among illiterate or semi-literate people and is still a living tradition in northern Greece, parts of the central Balkans, and in Sicily. The literary ballad is not anonymous and is written by a poet as he composes it.

I love a ballad but even too well; if it be doleful matter, merrily set down, or a very pleasant thing indeed, and sung lamentably.

William Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale,
IV, c. 1611

Folk ballads or popular ballads are also known as ‘Authentic Ballads’ or ‘Traditional Ballads’. These ballads passed on to generations through sung publically. These ballads do not have any known poet. These were most famous during the 15 century. The Ballad writer drew his materials from local area life, from neighborhood and public history, from legend and folklores. The tales are usually based upon the theme of love, war, death, adventure and the supernatural. A very notable cycle combining all these themes and elements is the group of epic ballads or narodne pesme which grew up in Serbia as a result of the battle of Kosovo in 1389. The the British Isles the border conflicts between English and Scots produced many splendid ballads.

Among traditional ballads on various themes one should mention particularly The Elfin Knight; The Twa Sisters; Lord Randal; The Cruel Mother; The Three Ravens; Clerk Colvill; Young Beichan; The Wife of Usher’s Well; The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington; The Gypsy Laddie; James Harris; The Demon Lover; and Get Up and Bar the Door.

Of the Robin Hood and Border Ballads the following are among the well known: Robin Hood and The Monk; Robin Hood’s Death; Chevy Chase; Johnnie Armstrong; Johnnie Cock; and Captain Car.

Literary Ballads are those ballad which have a known author. These ballads became famous during the 18-19CE. For the initial some hundred years of their formation, these ballads were not considered ‘literary’ and were misinterpreted as folk ballads. Ballads turned out to be particularly well known in the Romantic movement of the eighteenth century with poets, for example, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats .Among ballads in the literary tradition there are several distinguished works, especially Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; John Keats’s La Belle Dame sans Merci;; W. S. Gilbert’s Bab Ballads; Chesterton’s Ballads of the White Horse; Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome; Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott; Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads; William Wordsworth’s Lucy Gray, or Solitude; and Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in collaboration published their Lyrical Ballads in 1798 which marked the beginning of the Romantic Movement in English Literature.

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