The Poem

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Gerard van Honthorst, The Concert, 16231

The Poem: This page gives you some information about the poetic form of the ballad, its definitions, and some characteristics. 

What is a Ballad?

Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” was written in the poetic form of the ballad. A ballad is usually defined as a narrative poem which tells a story and has repeating lines knows as refrains. In the 17th and 18th centuries, lyrical poems/songs would be printed on broadside sheets and could be accompanied with a tune.

The evolution of the ballad is interesting as it originated from folk musical forms pertaining to sentimental or romantic themes and then developed into a social statement form that was used to critique established institutions. Specifically; the government, the church, and the Aristocracy such as kings and popes. The nature of the ballad bridged the gap between the private and the public. The broadside ballad, as you will read about in “About the Broadside,” took this idea a step further.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists two variations of the word ballad: “ballad” and “ballade.” And it is noted that with early uses of these words it is difficult to distinguish which definition would have been appropriate.

The definitions of “ballad:”

  • A light, simple song of any kind; (now) spec. a sentimental or romantic composition, typically consisting of two or more verses sung to the same melody with only light musical accompaniment.2
  • A popular, usually narrative, song, spec. one celebrating or scurrilously attacking persons or institutions.3

The definition of ballade:

  • A poem or song written in any of several similar metres typically consisting of stanzas of seven or eight lines of equal length; spec. one consisting of a triplet or triplets of cross-rhymed stanzas of this kind with a common final line and (usually) an envoy. Occasionally also: one of these stanzas.4

1 Gerrit van Honthorst, The Concert, 1623, oil on canvas, unframed: 123 × 206 cm (48 7/16 × 81 1/8 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Florian Carr Fund, 2013.38.1.
2 “ballad, n. 1a.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016.
3 “ballad, n. 1b.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016.

4 “ballade, n. 1a.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016.