The ballads that come to many peoples' minds are the lovestruck melodies of famous performing artists such as the Righteous Brothers, Elvis Presley, Lonestar, Frank Sinatra, and Peter Gabriel. However, ballads are also a literary form, which does closely resemble a song in some regards.
Literary ballads are often written in the form of poetry, with some consisting of quatrains and others consisting of couplets. They generally tell a story in a very direct and to the point manner, and they do not have to be about love at all.
Ballads often use vivid and expressive imagery in a detached manner to relay the tale. A prominent characteristic of ballads is that they can often easily be put to music.
At the beginning, ballads were a major part of the oral tradition. Therefore, they were not frequently written down.
It was not until around the 13th century in Italy and Spain that ballads became an important form of the written literary tradition.
An early example is a selection from a ballad entitled "Ballata 5" by Guido Cavalcanti which emphasizes the form and voice of the standard ballad of the day:
"That which befalls me in my Lady's presence/Bars explanation intellectual./I seem to see a lady wonderful/Spring forth between her lips, one whom no sense/Can fully tell the mind of, and one whence/Another, in beauty, springeth marvelous,/From whom a star goes forth and speaketh thus:/'Now my salvation is gone forth from thee.'"
Although like a poem in some ways, the ballad tells more of a story than a poem does. The ballad is able to complete a more full picture of what is going on.
Remember, that this example is only one selected stanza of the ballad. However, the narrative form of the ballad was not fully complete at this point of the ballad; and so, this example may appear to be more of a poem than seen in later ballads.
Throughout the 15th century, ballads began to take the form of advice pieces. Their purpose was often to impart wisdom upon the reader.
Their influence also spread, and writers in England, Spain, France, Italy, and Germany were composing them.
In the middle of the 15th century, Francois Villon wrote a ballad entitled "Ballad of the Gibbet" where he stated:
"Brothers and men that shall after us be,/Let not your hearts be hard to us:/For pitying this our misery/Ye shall find God the more piteous."
Villon was advising his enemies, but also making a narrative statement, about the condition of being hunted by another person.
Around the same time period, an anonymous Spanish poet, thought to be a woman, crafted "Ballad of the Cool Fountain." The intent of her message can really only be understood by reading the entire poem:
Fountain, coolest fountain,
Cool fountain of love,
Where all the sweet birds come
For comforting-but one,
A widow turtledove,
At once the nightingale,
That wicked bird, came by,
And spoke these honied words:
"My lady, if you will,
I shall be your slave."
"You are my enemy:
Begone, you are not true!"
Green boughs no longer rest me,
Nor any budding grove.
Clear springs, where there are such,
Turn muddy at my touch.
I want no spouse to love
Nor any children either.
I forego that pleasure and their comfort too.
No, leave me; you are false
And wicked-vile, untrue!
I'll never be your mistress!
I'll never marry you!
See how this ballad can not really be broken down as the other two were? Taking a small selection from this piece would prove rather confusing for the reader, and he or she might not be able to tell what the work is about at all.
This piece is proof that the ballad began advancing toward much more narrative forms. However, further developments perfected the ballad form even more.
One of the most famous examples of a ballad is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." He truly sophisticated the form because he combined elements of the earlier ballads with newer methods.
"It is an ancient Mariner,/And he stoppeth one of three./'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,/Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?"
Say it out loud a few times, and listen for the musical beat. If the musical beat does not come by then, sing it to the tune of the "Gilligan's Island" theme song. The beat is a perfect fit, and continues to be so for all of the remaining verses in the ballad.
Ballads are important to look at because they show how the form has developed over time. A ballad is not simply a romantic song, although that definition will still apply in the field of music. Romance can be infused into ballads, especially if they are a narrative tale of love (or hate) as seen in the ballad by the anonymous Spanish poet. However, they are so much more as well.
Anyone who knows the tale of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" knows how complex the story is in terms of theme, imagery, characters, symbolism, and many other literary devices and significations.