On no account should the ballad be confused with the ballade

This is what a ballad looks like. (Since this one's so educational, we'll have the whole thing.)

Ballad of Hereward the Wake
When England last was overrun
A thousand years ago,
’Twas William, with his Norman horde,
Who was King Harold’s foe.

At Hastings their two armies met
One fateful, fatal day.
When Harold got one in the eye
The French had won, away.

His conkers William picked up,
And total power he took.
Penned all our nobles and their lands
Up in his Domesday Book.

But one there was in Lincolnshire
Who would not bend the knee,
For Hereward, known as “The Wake”
Vowed England should be free.

He made alliance with the Danes
(A bunch of Viking hunks);
On Peterborough made a raid
And stole stuff from the monks.

King William (as he now was) seethed
He was quite furious, really!
So Hereward upped sticks and left,
And took refuge in Ely.

Now Ely was an island then
With marshes all around.
There were some ways across to it,
But none the Normans found!

They built a causeway out of wood,
Began to march across –
But with the weight of their chain mail
They sank. ’Twas a dead loss.

Then psychological warfare
They thought they’d give a try.
They put a witch upon a tower
To moon at passers-by.

The English under Hereward
Survived this sorcery.
The witch fell off and broke her neck,
So Ely still was free.

Alas, our hero was betrayed –
The monks’ revenge was sweet!
They helped the Normans find the way.
The English must retreat.

But Fenland is a plashy place;
Patrolling it’s a chore.
It was the perfect setting for
Our first guerrilla war.

So Hereward the Wake and chums,
Intrepid, without fear,
Skulked there, and harried William
For… well, about a year.

And then, it seems, he disappeared,
Our hero, Hereward.
But he lives on in legend still,
A Fenland Robin Hood.

That's pretty accurate, historically.  For the avoidance of doubt, the word "moon" is used here in its modern sense of "to present one's bare buttocks to public view".

Anyway, the form... it's an easy one, as you see, ideal for carrying a narrative. The metre should be clear enough (except where I stretched it a little for "Ely"). The second and fourth lines are shorter than the other two, and are the only ones that rhyme. The language is "unpoetic", plain colloquial English.


A ballad will always use the same kind of stanza throughout, but the stanzas may vary a little from those above. Some ballads may have line 2 the same length as lines 1 and 3 i.e 4 feet/8 syllables. Occasionally, a ballad will have lines 1 and 3 rhyming with each other. As long as it bounces along and gets the story told, nobody is going to be too bothered about minor details of the form.

A Question of Odehood

Is a ballad an ode? The thing is, on the page about odes I said the ballad was an example of an ode form... but now I've told you it (usually) has two lines in each stanza that don't rhyme with anything, thereby violating one of the main conditions of odehood. I think I'm going to claim that the ballad about Hereward, for example, would plainly be an ode if it were laid it out differently, with each stanza presented as a rhyming couplet of 14-syllable lines. And it surely can't be any less intrinsically odious, when laid out as above. (This argument may open the floodgates to spurious claims from all kinds of strange forms. But who cares, really?)

Since writing that, it has come to my notice that Louis MacNeice's justly-famed Bagpipe Music looks remarkably like a ballad laid out as couplets. And so does Swinburne's mischievous The Higher Pantheism in a Nutshell (and Tennyson's The Higher Pantheism, which provoked it).  

Notable Ballads and Balladeers

Numerous poems by the great Anon: Sir Patrick Spens and The Lass of Lochroyan, to name but two.

The Diverting History of John Gilpin, by William Cowper.

Thomas Hood wrote a lot of ballads, many of them pathetic, including Faithless Nelly Gray and Faithless Sally Brown. Tom was strangely attracted to faithless women, evidently. He also usually worked on the basis that each and every stanza of a ballad must contain a ghastly pun.

Robert Burns wrote a fair number of poems in this form, such as The Banks o' Doon and Jean. Some Sassenachs find him a little hard to follow at times, though.

Other famous poems that are ballads, more or less, are The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge), La Belle Dame Sans Merci (Keats), and The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Oscar Wilde). And it's not hard to find more modern examples e.g. W H Auden's As I walked out one evening.

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© Bob Newman 2004. All rights reserved.

This page last updated 24/05/2007