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The History and Definition of Ballad Poetry

By Gary R. Hess. Category: Poetry

Ballads have long lost their popularity. They were once used as a quick way to tell stories and news. Today, however, the genre is used more to form music which can easily be danced with and tell stories of love and love lost. During the mid-1900s the poetry form saw a huge resurgence in popularity. Ever since the masters of the Ballad have passed, the genre can only be found within small clubs. You can rarely find it on the radio, but when you do, it's hard not to sway.

There are three forms of poetry: narrative, dramatic and lyrical. Each one can be divided up into even more sub-genres. For narrative poetry, one of these sub-genres is the ballad.

Ballad poetry is a form of verse and is often set to song. Narrative poems, especially ballads, contain a plot. From the early-19th century and before, ballads were a way for songs and stories to be passed through Great Britain. This practice has been occuring since the medieval period. During the mid-to-late 19th century, ballads spread across most of Europe and made its way to North America, Australia, and North Africa. Towards the latter part of the 19th century, the poetic form took on a whole new meaning: a slow love song. This type of ballad gained great popularity during the 1960s and 1970s.

The thirteenth-century manuscript titled "Judas" is one of the earliest ballads found. However, the ballad may have actually originated through Scandinavian and Germanic storytelling which would make the ballad perhaps centuries older than the manuscript suggests.

Most northern and western European ballads have been written in quatrains (four-line stanzas) using alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, known as ballad meter. Commonly, only the second and fourth lines of each quatrain are rhymed. This is perhaps due to the theoretical origination of the poetic form being written in couplets. However, this has yet to be proved.

Spanish ballads, known as romanceros, are octosyllabic (8 syllables) and use consonance instead of rhyme. Other languages and countries sometimes also differ greatly from the Northern and Western European ballad. Nonetheless, the general meaning and usage of the form is always in place.

The true definition of "ballad" is mostly up to discussion. Like many other types of poetry, it has changed and been expanded upon for centuries. Today, there are tens, even hundreds of types of ballads with each written slightly different from the next.

This is what makes poetry so beautiful.