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The Ballade

Learn everything you ever wanted to know about the ballade poetry form, with examples of the ballade and its myriad variations.

Ballade of a Ship

      By Edwin Arlington Robinson

      Down by the flash of the restless water 
      The dim White Ship like a white bird lay; 
      Laughing at life and the world they sought her,
      And out she swung to the silvering bay. 
      Then off they flew on their roystering way, 
      And the keen moon fired the light foam flying 
      Up from the flood where the faint stars play, 
      And the bones of the brave in the wave are lying.  
     'T was a king's fair son with a king's fair daughter,  
      And full three hundred beside, they say, — 
      Revelling on for the lone, cold slaughter 
      So soon to seize them and hide them for aye; 
      But they danced and they drank and their souls grew gay,
      Nor ever they knew of a ghoul's eye spying 
      Their splendor a flickering phantom to stray
      Where the bones of the brave in the wave are lying.
      Through the mist of a drunken dream they brought her 
      (This wild white bird) for the sea-fiend's prey: 
      The pitiless reef in his hard clutch caught her, 
      And hurled her down where the dead men stay. 
      A torturing silence of wan dismay — 
      Shrieks and curses of mad souls dying — 
      Then down they sank to slumber and sway 
      Where the bones of the brave in the wave are lying.
      Prince, do you sleep to the sound alway 
      Of the mournful surge and the sea-birds' crying? — 
      Or does love still shudder and steel still slay, 
      Where the bones of the brave in the wave are lying? 

Handbook of Poetic Forms The Ballade started in France in the 14th and 15th centuries. Geoffrey Chaucer, most famous for his long epic poem The Canterbury Tales imported the form into English poetry in the 16th century. The most popular form of ballade is crafted with three stanzas containing eight lines each and a final quatrain as an envoy. The stanzas follow the same rhyming pattern, ababbcbc, and repeat the last line. The envoy also repeats the repeating line as the last in the poem and follows the rhyme scheme bcbc. This form may be written in iambic tetrameter or iambic pentameter, though variations are acceptable.

A ballade supreme is a 10-line ballade crafted with three stanzas of 10 lines each and a final five or six line envoy. The rhyme scheme for the stanzas is ababbccdcd.

The envoy may rhyme as ccdcd or ccdccd. Again, the final line of each stanza and the envoy is a repeating line. Francois Villon wrote some beautiful poems in this form. Perhaps one of the finest examples of the ballade supreme is Ballade des Pendus by Villon.

      Ballade des Pendus

            or Ballade of the Hanged Men
      Brothers, men who live after us,
      Let not your hearts be hardened against us,
      Because, if you have pity for us poor men,
      God will have more mercy toward you.
      You see us here attached five or six: 
      When our flesh that was nourished so well 
      Is overtime devoured and putrified,
      And we, the bones, have become cinders and powder.
      Let no one laugh at our misfortune:
      But pray that God absolve us all! 
      If we call you, brothers, you ought not
      To have disdain even though we were killed
      By law. Often, you know
      That not all men have a righteous mind;
      Excuse us, now that we have passed, 
      Toward the son of the Virgin Mary,
      That her grace will not be slow for us,
      Preserving us from the infernal fire.
      We are dead, no soul harries us;
      But pray that God absolve us all! 
      The rain has washed and purified us,
      And the sun has dried and blackened us:
      Magpies, crows have dug out our eyes
      And pulled out our beards and eyebrows.
      Never do we have rest; 
      The changeable wind blows us first this way, then that,
      To its pleasure without ceasing,
      Our skin has more bird peckings than if it were sewed.
      Do not leave our company then;
      But pray that God absolve us all! 
      Prince Jesus, who is lord of all,
      Keep us from the tyranny of Hell:
      Let the Devil have no claim over us.
      Men, make no mockery here;
      But pray that God absolve us all! 

The seven line ballade, called a ballade royal, consists of four rhyme royals, each a stanza of its own, without an envoy and with the obligatory final line repeating. The rhyme scheme is ababbcc.

Chaucer’s Ballade of Good Counsel is an excellent example of the ballade royal:
      FLEE from the press, and dwell with soothfastness;
      Suffice thee thy good, though it be small;
      For hoard hath hate, and climbing tickleness,
      Press hath envy, and *weal is blent* o'er all,
      Savour* no more than thee behove shall;
      Read* well thyself, that other folk canst read;
      And truth thee shall deliver, it is no dread.
      Paine thee not each crooked to redress,
      In trust of her that turneth as a ball;
      Great rest standeth in little business:
      Beware also to spurn against a nail; 
      Strive not as doth a crocke* with a wall;
      Deeme* thyself that deemest others' deed,
      And truth thee shall deliver, it is no dread.
      What thee is sent, receive in buxomness;
      The wrestling of this world asketh a fall;
      Here is no home, here is but wilderness.
      Forth, pilgrim! Forthe beast, out of thy stall!
      Look up on high, and thank thy God of all!
      Weive thy lust, and let thy ghost* thee lead,
      And truth thee shall deliver, it is no dread
Another variation of the ballade worth mentioning is the chant royal. This form is an 11-line per stanza variation followed by a five line envoy. There can be three or five stanzas following the 11-line format, but they all must have the same rhyme scheme, ababccddede. Like all other ballades, the final line of each stanza is a repeating line and appears finally as the last line of the envoy, which rhymes ddede.

The following poem by Austin Dobson is an example of a chant royal:

      The Dance of Death

      He is the despots' Despot. All must bide, 
      Later or soon, the message of his might;
      Princes and potentates their heads must hide, 
      Touched by the awful sigil of his right;
      Beside the Kaiser he at eve doth wait 
      And pours a potion in his cup of state;
      The stately Queen his bidding must obey;
      No keen-eyed Cardinal shall him affray; 
      And to the Dame that wantoneth he saith--
      "Let be, Sweet-heart, to junket and to play." 
      There is no King more terrible than Death. 
      The lusty Lord, rejoicing in his pride, 
      He draweth down; before the armed Knight 
      With jingling bridle-rein he still doth ride; 
      He crosseth the strong Captain in the fight; 
      The Burgher grave he beckons from debate; 
      He hales the Abbot by his shaven pate, 
      Nor for the Abbess' wailing will delay; 
      No bawling Mendicant shall say him nay; 
      E'en to the pyx the Priest he followeth, 
      Nor can the Leech* his chilling finger stay
      There is no King more terrible than Death. 
      All things must bow to him. And woe betide 
      The Wine-bibber,--the Roisterer by night; 
      Him the feast-master, many bouts defied, 
      Him 'twixt the pledging and the cup shall smite; 
      Woe to the Lender at usurious rate, 
      The hard Rich Man, the hireling Advocate;
      Woe to the Judge that selleth Law for pay;
      Woe to the Thief that like a beast of prey
      With creeping tread the traveller harryeth:-- 
      These, in their sin, the sudden sword shall slay . . .
      There is no King more terrible than Death. 
      He hath no pity, -- nor will be denied. 
      When the low hearth is garnished and bright,
      Grimly he flingeth the dim portal wide, 
      And steals the Infant in the Mother's sight;
      He hath no pity for the scorned of fate:--
      He spares not Lazarus lying at the gate, 
      Nay, nor the Blind that stumbleth as he may; 
      Nay, the tired Ploughman,--at the sinking ray,--
      In the last furrow,--feels an icy breath,
      And knows a hand hath turned the team astray . . .
      There is no King more terrible than Death. 
      He hath no pity. For the new-made Bride, 
      Blithe with the promise of her life's delight, 
      That wanders gladly by her Husband's side, 
      He with the clatter of his drum doth fright.
      He scares the Virgin at the convent grate; 
      The Maid half-won, the Lover passionate; 
      He hath no grace for weakness and decay:
      The tender Wife, the Widow bent and gray, 
      The feeble Sire whose footstep faltereth,-- 
      All these he leadeth by the lonely way . . .
      There is no King more terrible than Death. 
      Youth, for whose ear and monishing of late, 
      I sang of Prodigals and lost estate, 
      Have thou thy joy of living and be gay;
      But know not less that there must come a day,-- 
      Aye, and perchance e'en now it hasteneth,-- 
      When thine own heart shall speak to thee and say-- 
      There is no King more terrible than Death.

The Book of Forms A common theme can be seen running through most ballades. The form is typically, though not always, used to reflect on themes of death. Many times they are written as eulogies or epitaphs as is the case in Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas. The ballade royal and chant royal forms usually are written to a royal person or reference royalty in some way. It takes discipline and skill to write a ballade worthy of any merit. Villon and Thomas are poets whose skill are evident in their work and who are often difficult to imitate. But with the right frame of mind and the proper study any aspiring poet can craft a ballade worthy of mention in the annals of poetic history. He may even make his mark and join the ranks of the world-class poets.

Read the following ballade by contemporary poet Allen Taylor and judge for yourself whether he should be added to the ranks of the world class poets:


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