A rhyming poem was an easy way to remember and pass on news. As literacy spread throughout Europe, hand-written copies of ballads were commonly distributed. After the invention of the printing press, the ballad exploded in popularity.
On a single large sheet of paper, artists would print their verses and illustrations. A popular tune would be suggested for a rhythm. They are the forerunner of the pamphlet and the chapbook.
From the Streets to the Scholars. As light began to shine on the Dark Ages, prominent writers took what the peasants were hearing on the street corners and made it their own, combining more polished language with a form more free than the popular sonnet.
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, from the end of the fourteenth century, is a collection of narratives-in-verse with various speakers. This work went against the practice of featuring great royal, historical or mythological characters. Rather, simple country folk were commonly the subjects. This collection includes The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge, perhaps the world's best known ballad.
Lewis Carroll brought his childish and playful style to the ballad form in The Walrus and the Carpenter. The poem was inside of Through the Looking-Glass , published in He investigated the entire history of the ballad, including printed and oral, across thirty-seven languages. He included notes on music, historical figures, mythology and cultural variations.
Overall, Child includes ballads. This work is considered the definitive text on the history of ballads. To write your own ballad, you must begin by establishing your story. So free-write, as I always say. Start in a general direction and detail the events in your narrative. Feel free to wander off on tangents. Dwell on particular details. Write and write until you've created original descriptions.
Remember that great storytelling involves making your reader feel involved. Don't just tell them what happened, but immerse them in your sensory world. This is a good time to break away from your normal notebook routine. Get a large easel or a sheet of butcher paper. Use a white-board or a chalk-board, but please take a picture before you erase. Give yourself a large space to write.
Splash your plot, setting and characters across it. Now find what's important to your narrative. When telling a story in verse, you have limited words, so be concise. Have a clear line of plot. Select very few central characters. Know what sensory details support your theme.
While stanza length and rhyme scheme are your choice, historical balladeers have formed a few patterns. Stanzas have often been four, six or eight lines each. Sometimes authors have varied the length of stanzas within a work.
Some writers have used refrains or other repetition. Take your favorite small piece from your free-writing and see what form it wants. Maybe you have a great beginning. Let that segment tell you stanza length and rhyme scheme. Definitely read your work aloud. This is a piece of oral communication as much as a piece for the page. It needs to sound right. Also, it's a song, so some sort of repetition should carry the reader or listener along.
The Challenge of Dialogue. Writing a poem about a conversation is quite tricky. Using a limited number of syllables and a restrictive form makes clear dialogue challenging. First, limit the number of characters. In the eighteenth century, poetry existed within a hierarchy. Epics and tragedies were at the pinnacle; comedy, satire, and pastoral poetry were in the middle; and short folksy ballads were at the bottom. Think about Paradise Lost at the top and the ballads collected by Robert Burns at the bottom.
To be considered a poem of literary merit, a poem had to adhere to certain expectations: It used elevated diction; dealt with characters in the upper classes; and used elaborate figures of speech, such as excessive personification of abstract concepts.
Wordsworth and Coleridge broke with these conventions by using "incidents and situations from common life" and "language really used by men. By our standards, lyrical ballads are traditional verse. Wordsworth and Coleridge strongly believed in using "metrical arrangement," that is, consistent rhythm and meter, and most lyrical ballads have strong rhymes.
The final requirement they used in their new category of poetry was that the poem must be composed in a "state of vivid sensation" and must seek to recreate that sensation in the reader. This reflects the Romantic tenet of strong emotions. In summary, then, a lyrical ballad is traditional verse poetry that uses consistent rhythm and meter, rhyme, and the language of common speech to convey and arouse emotions while treating the topics of everyday life.
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