Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Let's All Write a Ballad!

Yes, I am still working through The Handbook of Poetic Forms in spite of the half-year's worth of simmering on the back burner.

Our next tasting of vinum daemonum is the variety known as The Ballad.  This is an ancient form.  Let's spend a moment unpacking the history of the form before we glide into composition.

Early ballads were folk songs, likely originating in the borderlands of Scotland and England.  Their subject matter would often include the supernatural or mythological, love, and heightened emotions (which is code speak for "probably someone dies.")  Here is an example from the folk/celtic/goth fusion band Faith and the Muse with an interpretation of the traditional ballad The Unquiet Grave:

Of course, there are examples in the evolution of the form of the ballad being employed for more exclusively social justice messages as American folk music enthusiasts are probably well aware.  There are variations on the form in the Western Canon, notably Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol (both of which I highly recommend) falling more in line with the "heightened emotion" subject matter.  Needless to say, the ballad in the literary form is not necessarily set to music, although it can be and certainly, as with all poetry, must needs be composed on the tongue.

I should also mention the hodiernal prevailing understanding of the ballad in popular music as a love ballad which may conjure up images of a stadium full of waving lighters or, more likely, the sort of song at a concert during which bathroom lines increase in density.  Often in popular music the understanding of the subject matter is simply distilled to love songs, however I would point out the Ballad of John and Yoko by The Beatles as a notable and well known exception.  I would also remind Nick Cave fans of his album of traditional Murder Ballads (and anyone who has never heard it, I would highly encourage to seek out that astonishing album with all speed.)

The traditional form is four line stanzas.  Lines 1 and 3 have four beats; lines 2 and 4 have three beats and rhyme.  Here is my modest contribution to the artform:

The Ballad of Frogs and Fate
By Paul Mathers

The Moirae, tired of their task
a-spinning yarns of fate,
and for a moment of respite
needed a surrogate.

By need they called the closest beast
to occupy the thing.
They gave some local frogs the job
to spin and cut the string.

The Moirae gone, the frogs spun out
two lovers at a lake
and planted in his jealous mind
a cuckolding mistake.

When he espied the kerchief that she
used to wipe her tears,
He thought it a gift from a beau,
confirming all his fears.

His rage deaf to her protesting
he pushed her in and down.
His hand firm on her pretty head
His true love he did drown.

Despairing of his loss of love,
a rock tied to his shin,
he bid the wicked world adieu,
and threw his body in.

The Moirae back, the frogs relieved,
as reward for their aid,
the Fates offered to send the frogs
where ever they would say.

The frogs went to the lake where the
two lovers bodies lie,
to wait for the two corpses to
attract a swarm of flies.

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