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European literature begins with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssy, which means that it begins with stories in verse. We are accustomed to thinking of a story as prose in a book, but until a few hundred years ago stories were commonly poetry that was sung or recited. In nonliterate societies men got their stories from storytellers who relied on memory rather than on the written word; the memorised stories were often poems, partly because (in Sir Philip Sidney’s words) “verse far exceedeth prose in the knitting up of the memory”. Even in literate societies, few people could read or write until the invention of the printing press at the close of the fifteenth century. Although the printing press did not immediately destroy oral verse narratives, as the centuries passed, and an increasingly large reading public developed which preferred prose narratives.

Among the great verse narratives are the English and Scottish popular ballads, some of the best of which are attributed to the fifteenth century, though they were not recorded until much later. These anonymous stories in song acquired their distinctive flavour by being passed down orally from generation to generation, each singer consciously or unconsciously modifying his inheritance. It is not known who made up the popular ballads; often they were made up partly out of earlier ballads by singers as bold as Kipling’s cockney:

When “Omer smote ‘is blooming lyre, He’d ‘eard men sing by land an’ sea’ An’ what he though ‘e might require, “E went an’ took – the ame as me!

Most ballad singers probably were composers only by accident; they intended to transmit what they had heard, but their memories were sometimes faulty and their imaginations active. The modifications effected by oral transmission generally give a ballad three noticeable qualities. First, it is impersonal; even if there is an “I” who sings the tale, he is usually characterless. Second, the ballad – like other oral literature such as the nursery rhyme, the counting-out rhyme – is filled with repetition, sometimes of lines, sometimes of words. Consider for example,
Go saddle me the black, the black
Go saddle me the brown.

O wha is this has done this deid,
This ill deid don to me?

Sometimes, in fact, the story is told by repeating lines with only a few significant variations. This is called incremental repetition (repetition with slight variations advancing the narrative). Furthermore, stock epithets are repeated from ballad to ballad: “true love”, “milk-white steed”, “golden hair”. Oddly, these clichés do not bore us but by their impersonality often lend a simplicity that effectively contrasts with the violence of the tale. Third, because the ballads are transmitted orally, residing in the memory rather than on the printed page, weak stanzas have often been dropped, leaving a series of sharp scenes, frequently with a dialogue.

Because ballads were sung rather than printed, and because singers made alterations, there is no one version of a ballad that is the “correct” one. If you would like to really research the history of ballads, there are a number of good books listed in the “Recommended Reading” section of this site to start you on your way.

Popular ballads have been much imitated by professional poets, especially since the late eighteenth century. Three such literary ballads are Keat’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and W.H. Auden’s “O what is that sound”. In a literary ballad the story element is often infused with multiple meanings, with insistent symbolic implications. Ambiguity is often found in the popular ballad also, but it is of a rather different sort. Whether it is due to the loss of stanzas or to the creator’s unconcern with some elements of the narrative, the ambiguity of the popular ballad commonly lies in the narrative itself rather than in the significance of the narrative.

contributed by Gifford, Katya

9 March 2002

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