The top 10 best ballad examples from English literature will help you understand this type of poetry.
Ballads are poems that are meant to be or have the right rhyme pattern to be songs. They are a rich part of modern literary tradition, often becoming part of a culture’s oral history.
So what is a ballad? The Poetry Foundation defines the ballad form as “a popular narrative song passed down orally.” Similarly, it typically follows a rhyme scheme of abcb, where the second and fourth lines of each four-line stanza, also known as a quatrain, rhyme, or abab, where every other line rhymes.
To better understand this poetic form, here are the 10 best ballad examples from English literature.
- 1. “La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John Keats
- 2. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- 3. “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe
- 4. “A Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns
- 5. “The Ballad of the Red Earl” by Rudyard Kipling
- 6. “The Solitary Reaper” by William Wordsworth
- 7. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde
- 8. “The Ballad of Father Gilligan” by William Butler Yeats
- 9. “Bonnie Barbara Allen”
- 10. “John Henry”
- Poetry Resources
1. “La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John Keats
One of the oldest known English ballad poems, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” means “The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy. This poem is one of the best examples of ballads because it perfectly follows the abcb rhyme scheme.
Like many of Keats’s poems, this one focuses on the themes of love and death. In the poem a fairy seduces a knight then condemns him to an untimely demise.
“I met a lady in the meadsJohn Keats
Full beautiful, a faery’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.”
2. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The longest poem by Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” tells starts with an elderly sailor stopping a man on the way to a wedding. He begins a harrowing tale of life at sea, his poor choice of shooting an albatross and the penance he pays for his mistake.
With over 600 lines, this poem is quite long for a traditional ballad, but it still fits the form. It is also an example of an epic poem because of its length. One of the most famous stanzas is this one:
“Water, water, every where,Samuel Taylor Coleridge
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.”
3. “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe
In a kingdom by the sea, Edgar Allan Poe weaves the tale of the lovely Annabel Lee. This love song is a tragic one, because Annabel Lee dies, leaving behind her lover to mourn her life.
This poem is famous because it is the last poem Poe completed before his death, and its publication occurred after the death of the poet.
“It was many and many a year ago,Edgar Allan Poe
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;”
4. “A Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns
This lyrical ballad compares love to a rose, and Bob Dylan once called it his “single biggest inspiration.” Because it has lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter woven throughout, it fits the literary ballad tradition, even though it is not a narrative poem.
While the meter and rhyme scheme make this poem an example of a ballad, it is also one of the most famous examples of simile in English literature.
“O my Luve is like a red, red roseRobert Burns
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune”
5. “The Ballad of the Red Earl” by Rudyard Kipling
Kipling modeled “The Ballad of the Red Earl” after the traditional ballad poems of the Scottish Border country. He uses many abbreviations that come from the Scottish language.
The poem mocks fun at Earl Spencer, and he published the poem just two days after an infamous speech made by the Earl. In the following excerpt, Kipling accuses the Earl of blindly following William Gladstone, leader of the Liberal party, as if he were diety.
“Ye have followed a man for a God, Red Earl,Rudyard Kipling
As the Lord o’ Wrong and Right;
But the day is done with the setting sun
Will ye follow into the night?”
6. “The Solitary Reaper” by William Wordsworth
As one of the best-known poems of Wordsworth, “The Solitary Reaper” earns a spot on this list. It explores the beauty of a Highland lass harvesting crops in a field and singing a sad song that passersby can hear.
Since many ballads are also songs, it is fitting that this poem is about a girl singing an unknown song. It praises music as a form of beauty. It follows a different rhyme scheme, abab instead of abcb, but still fits the ballad form.
“Will no one tell me what she sings?—William Wordsworth
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:”
7. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde
This famous ballad starts out tragic as the main character lies dead. The poem tells about a man subject to the death penalty after spending many years in prison.
Wilde uses the meter of the poem well, helping the reader get a feel fr the pounding, boring rhythm of daily life in prison.
“He did not wear his scarlet coat,Oscar Wilde
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,”
8. “The Ballad of Father Gilligan” by William Butler Yeats
In this poem, Yeats tells the story of a tired old priest whose flock is fighting illness. He gets called to the bedside of a dying man, only to fall asleep.
When he awakens, the man has died. He sneaks out, then comes back as if for the first time to perform last rites, all without the family knowing he fell asleep on the job.
“The old priest Peter GilliganWilliam Butler Yeats
Was weary night and day;
For half his flock were in their beds,
Or under green sods lay.”
9. “Bonnie Barbara Allen”
Though the name of the author has gotten lost in history, “Bonny Barbara Allen” remains one of the more popular folk ballads. This song tells the tragic story of a lord who calls on the winsome Barbara Allen while sick in bed, only to have his love spurned.
The first known references to this poem came from the 1600s, making it one of the older poems on this list. These songs became part of the oral history of England and Ireland, often sung by minstrels at fairs and gatherings.
“He turned his face unto the wall,Joan Baez
And death was with him dealing:
‘Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all,
And be kind to Barbara Allen.’”
10. “John Henry”
Another famous folk ballad, “John Henry” comes from the culture of the African American workers. It tells the story of a heroic black working man, and it likely originated as a work song.
Whether or not John Henry was based on a real person remains a debate among historians, but the song itself has taken its place among the best ballads of all time.
“When John Henry was a little baby,
Just a sittn’ on his mammy’s knee,
Said, ‘The Big Bend Tunnel on that C&O Road
Gonna be the death of me, Lord God
Going to be the death of me.'”
Join over 15,000 writers today
Get a FREE book of writing prompts and learn how to make more money from your writing.