Poems of the Week: Ballads


I'll return, later, to the question of conversational poetry and satire, but for a little relief--and a discussion that can lead eventually to Hopkins--let us turn to the ballad.

Ballads are story telling poems or songs written in rhyming quatrains, alternating lines of 4 and 3 stresses.  Sometimes these shorter lines are combined into a longer line known as a fourteener, because if it ends blunt with a masculine rhyme, it has 14 syllables.  Here, to illustrate the form, are the first three lines of a famous literary specimen by Oscar Wilde:

He did not wear his scarlet coat for blood and wine are red

And blood and wine were on his hands when they found him with the dead

The poor dead woman whom he loved and murdered in her bed.


I described this as a literary specimen, because many ballads are rather subliterary or folkish.  This very popular English and Scottish form was taken to America and it thrived in Appalachia.  In describing ballads as subliterary I do not at all mean any disrespect.  They can be quite sophisticated in narrative technique.  A primitive pop ballad often tells the whole story from beginning to end, while a good ballad has boiled down the essence to the point that the listener can be confused if he has not heard the song before.

Let's take an early one.  This version of Barbara Allen was collected and possibly prettified by Bishop Percy.  As I recall, it is the version sung by that great patriotic songster, Peter Seeger.

  • In Scarlet Town where I was born
    There was a fair maid dwelling
    Made every youth cry 'Well-a-day'

    Her name was Barbara Allen
  • 'Twas in the merry month of May
    When the green buds they were swelling
    Sweet William on his death-bed lay
    For the love of Barbara Allen
    He sent his servant to the town
    To the place where she was dwelling
    Said, Master, he bid you to him
    If your name be Barbara Allen
    Then slowly slowly she got up
    And slowly when she nighed him
    And when she drew the curtain back
    Said, Young man, I think you're dying
    Oh yes I'm sick, I'm very very sick
    And I never can be better
    Until I have the love of one
    The love of Barbara Allen

    Then slowly slowly she got up
    And he trembled like an aspen
    'Tis vain 'tis vain, young man, Said she
    To fain for Barbara Allen

    She walked out in a green green field
    She heard his death bells knelling
    At every toll they seemed to say
    Cold-hearted Barbara Allen

    Her eyes looked east, her eyes looked west
    She saw his pale corpse coming
    Said, Bearers oh bearers, pray put him down
    So I may look upon him

    The more she looked the more she grieved
    Until she burst out crying
    O bearers, o bearers, pray take him away
    For I am now a-dying

    Oh father, oh father, go dig my grave
    Go dig it deep and narrow
    Sweet William he died for me today
    I'll die for him tomorrow

    They buried her in the old churchyard
    Sweet William's grave was nigh her
    And from his heart grew a red red rose
    And from her heart a briar

    They grew and they grew the old churchyard wall
    Till they couldn't grow no higher
    Until they tied a true lovers' knot
    The red rose and the briar


    "Barbara Allen" is not especially useful for a discussion of narrative clarity, because the tradition is obscure.  There is a theory I read years ago in an academic volume, that as cultures progress songs become more articulate and coherent.  More articulate in the sense that it is important to understand what words are being sung, and coherent in the sense of a clear narrative presentation.  A lot of African songs consist of the repetition of nonsense sounds, poorly articulated, interpolated with statements like, "Building me a boat today, unhunh, building me a boat.  Contrast this with the Psalms and then contrast the Psalms with, say, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, a beautifully constructed narrative.  I think it was actually the late Allan Lomax who argued that British Ballads take this one step beyond--as by the way, Pindar does and the writers of Greek tragedy in their lyrics--and you can take the narrative background for granted and either suppress boring transitional details or not fill in the picture because the singer is concentrating on other things.
    Take this early song, not strictly a ballad, though if we leave out the exclamations it has the form, "Edward", which we all had to read in college.  It is absolutely chilling.  We don't know exactly what mon's plot was but it is Macbethian in its evil.
    Why dois your brand sae drap wi' bluid,
    Edward, Edward?
    Why dois your brand sae drap wi' bluid?
    And why sae sad gang ye, O?
    O, I hae killed my hauke sae guid,
    Mither, mither,
    O, I hae killed my hauke sae guid,
    And I had nae mair bot hee, O.
    Your haukis bluid was nevir sae reid,
    Edward, Edward,
    Your haukis bluid was nevir sae reid,
    My deir son I tell thee, O.
    O, I hae killed my reid-roan steid,
    Mither, mither,
    O, I hae killed my reid-roan steid,
    That erst was sae fair and frie, O.
    Your steid was auld, and ye hae gat mair,
    Edward, Edward,
    Your steid was auld, and ye hae gat mair,
    Sum other dule ye drie, O.
    O, I hae killed my fadir deir,
    Mither, mither,
    O, I hae killed my fadir deir,
    Alas, and wae is mee, O.
    And whatten penance wul ye drie for that,
    Edward, Edward?
    And whatten penance will ye drie for that?
    My deir son, now tell me, O.
    Ile set my feit in yonder boat,
    Mither, mither,
    Il set my feit in yonder boat,
    And Ile fare ovir the sea, O.
    And what wul ye doe wi' your towirs and your ha',
    Edward, Edward?
    And what wul ye doe wi' your towirs and your ha',
    That were sae fair to see, O?
    Ile let thame stand tul they doun fa',
    Mither, mither,
    Ile let thame stand tul they doun fa',
    For here nevir mair maun I bee, O.
    And what wul ye leive to your bairns and your wife,
    Edward, Edward?
    And what wul ye leive to your bairns and your wife,
    Whan ye gang ovir the sea, O?
    The warldis room, late them beg thrae life,
    Mither, mither,
    The warldis room, let them beg thrae life,
    For thame nevir mair wul I see, O.
    And what wul ye leive to your ain mither deir,
    Edward, Edward?
    And what wul ye leive to your ain mither deir?
    My deir son, now tell mee, O.
    The curse of hell frae me sall ye beir,
    Mither, mither,
    The curse of hell frae me sall ye beir,
    Sic counseils ye gave to me, O.
    Another favorite of min.
                  Johnie Armstrong
    	 THERE dwelt a man in faire Westmerland,
    	 Ionn  Armestrong men did him call,
    	 He had nither lands nor rents coming in,
    	 Yet he kept eight score men in his hall.
    	 He had horse and harness for them all,
    	 Goodly steeds were all milke-white;
    	 O the golden bands an about their necks,
    	 And their weapons, they were all alike.
    	 Newes then was brought unto the king
    	 That there was sicke a won as hee,
    	 That liv d lyke a bold out-law,
    	 And robb d all the north country.
    	 The king he writt an a letter then,
    	 A letter which was large and long;
    	 He sign d it with his owne hand,
    	 And he promised to doe him no wrong.
    	 When this letter came Ionn  untill,
    	 His heart it was as blythe as birds on the tree:
    	 ‘Never was I sent for before any king,
    	 My father, my grandfather, nor none but mee.
    	 ‘And if wee goe the king before,
    	 I would we went most orderly;
    	 Every man of you shall have his scarlet cloak,
    	 Laced with silver laces three.
    	 ‘Every won of you shall have his velvett coat,
    	 Laced with silver lace so white;
    	 O the golden bands an about your necks,
    	 Black hatts, white feathers, all alyke.’
    	 By the morrow morninge at ten of the clock,
    	 Towards Edenburough gon was hee,
    	 And with him all his eight score men;
    	 Good lord, it was a goodly sight for to see!
    	 When Ionn  came befower the king,
    	 He fell downe on his knee;
    	 ‘O pardon, my soveraigne leige,’ he said,
    	 ‘O pardon my eight score men and mee!’
    	 ‘Thou shalt have no pardon, thou traytor strong,
    	 For thy eight score men nor thee;
    	 For to-morrow morning by ten of the clock,
    	 Both thou and them shall hang on the gallow-tree.’
    	 But Ionn  looke’d over his left shoulder,
    	 Good Lord, what a grevious look looked hee!
    	 Saying, Asking grace of a graceles face-+--+-
    	 Why there is none for you nor me.
    	 But Ionn  had a bright sword by his side,
    	 And it was made of the mettle so free,
    	 That had not the king, stept his foot aside,
    	 He had smitten his head from his faire bodd .
    	 Saying, Fight on, my merry men all,
    	 And see that none of you be taine;
    	 For rather then men shall say we were hange’d,
    	 Let them report how we were slaine.
    	 Then, God wott, faire Eddenburrough rose,
    	 And so besett poore Ionn  rounde,
    	 That fowerscore and tenn of Ionn s best men
    	 Lay gasping all upon the ground.
    	 Then like a mad man Ionn  laide about,
    	 And like a mad man then fought hee,
    	 Untill a falce Scot came Ionn  behinde,
    	 And runn him through the faire boddee.
    	 Saying, Fight on, my merry men all,
    	 And see that none of you be taine;
    	 For I will stand by and bleed but awhile,
    	 And then will I come and fight againe.
    	 Newes then was brought to young Ionn  Armestrong,
    	 As he stood by his nurses knee,
    	 Who vowed if ere he live’d for to be a man,
    	 O the treacherous Scots revengd hee’d be.




Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.

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