Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Ballad: Poem and Music

In those days when we relied on word of mouth to transmit stories about our forefathers, the bard played an important part in daily and ceremonial life. He was the one who remembered and repeated the old stories. But as with all customs, things change. By the time of the middle ages we had court troubadours and minstrels who would wander, all trying to maintain themselves with their words and often with musical accompaniment. The stories they recited or sang were no longer the great epics of heroic deeds or the passions of the noble classes. Instead, the poet/performers turned to everyday concerns that were familiar to the common people, that were a part of their lives. The story poem or ballad, with or without music, became an important part of our language and literature. With it came a form, a simple method of construction, that is still very much in use today.

The story-poems as delivered were usually about happenings some distance away in time or place; they usually dealt with unknown people. Because they were not written, the facts and contexts often changed in the telling, until it no longer mattered exactly how and why the story/song-poem began its existence. A good example of this lies in the stories of Robin Hood. Some of the oldest written copies of ballads we have are about him. They seem to be based on and to incorporate parts of much older material. Still, the stories continue to be told and sung.

The attributes that made the ballad so versatile continued into the period of greater use of written language. Probably the most important was its form. The ballad was usually arranged in four-line rhymed stanzas; there is such variety in this form that it seems to become a natural pattern for poetry and one which is not difficult to master and employ.

The ballad stanza usually consists of four lines: the first and third are tetrameter (four feet) while the second and fourth are trimeter (three feet); the rhyme scheme is often a b a b. It would read:

a-dum, a-dum, a-dum, a-day,

a-dum, a-dum, a-do.

a-dum, a-dum, a-dum, a-day,

a-dum, a-dum, a-do.

This simple stanza can be easily and effectively changed. The quatrain can become four equal lines. The rhyme scheme can be changed in several ways, e.g. by not rhyming lines one and three. Or two and three can be rhymed to become a rhyming couplet between the lines of another couplet. Several other variations are easily formed. An extra line can be added. All this with a simple, four line formation, the ballad stanza. Coleridge used it in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner; Tennyson effectively makes it the basis of his In Memoriam; Oscar Wilde deftly uses it to condemn the penal system in The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

But about this time it becomes the foundation of another manner of expression. Poetry begins to move away from the strictures of the formal stanza. Because it has such musical and rhythmic characteristics and harks back to the ballads of the minstrels and the songs of the common folk, songs, and especially folk songs in America, use the form extensively. When used to tell stories in country music the ballad stanza is powerful.There is certainly no reason why a poet should not write in the "common measure" of the ballad stanza. In fact it should be an integral part of his knowledge and experience before he attempts to write "free verse." Without a deep understanding of rhythm and rhyme, structure and form, his writing so often becomes "free" without any hint of verse. And that can be a great loss.


annaken said...

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Anonymous said...

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