The UVic Writer's Guide



The popular ballad (folk ballad) is a story told in song, usually by an impersonal narrator and in a condensed form. Like epics, ballads use formulaic phrases and refrains (repeated words) to help the singer's memory. Ballads are commonly written using a ballad stanza: a quatrain of alternating four- and three-stress lines, usually rhyming on the second and fourth lines. A literary ballad, like a literary epic, is a learned imitation of the traditional form, and therefore tends to be more elaborate.

The following examples are the opening lines from Sir Walter Scott's "Proud Maisie" (1818) (note the impersonal narrator and ballad stanza), and an excerpt from Wordsworth's "We Are Seven" (1798) (a ballad which is "lyrical" because the speaker is personal):

Proud Maisie is in the wood
Walking so early;
Sweet Robin sits on the bush,
Singing so rarely.

"Tell me, thou bonny bird,
When shall I marry me?"--
"When six braw gentlemen
Kirkward shall carry ye."
* * * * * *

I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated April 11, 1995