It’s the little things that matter, as we wind down to the end of the year. Tiny lights on evergreen trees. Tiny candles in their rows. The tiny terminal ‘e’ that differentiates between a ballad and a ballade.

That’s right, we’re more or less obsessed with endings this month, so our poetry slam reflects that as we focus on a form that’s all about the end. The last line, to be exact. So hang onto your boots and let’s learn how to write a ballade.

Last things first: ballade, not ballad

Let’s get this out of the way early: a ballad is not the same thing as a ballade, even though both came from medieval French ballares, or dance songs (that’s also where we got ballet, y’all).

ballad is a long set of verses usually put to music and telling a story. The intro song for Fresh Prince of Bel Air is a ballad. So is Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. And of course both Longfellow’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and all the versions which have been sung of it, historical inaccuracy and all.

We wouldn’t make you write that. We’re not monsters. I mean, if it’s your jam, have at it. But this month we’re featuring the ballade.

Other than the e, what makes a ballade special?

A ballade is almost more a recipe for a poem than an actual rigid form. There are two or three absolute requirements, but each one has some options for you to choose from. That gives you a little freedom to work with, but hopefully not so much freedom that the form is intimidating. If you get overwhelmed, just flip a coin for any of the choices, and use that answer to dictate your form!

verses and terminus

A ballade has four verses: three long and one short. The important thing to note is that each verse ends with exactly the same line. So, um, there’s your two rigid requirements: four verses, each with the exact same last line. Now let’s get into the options.

length

Here’s where we start getting into options. The important thing to remember here is that you will end up with three long verses and one short one. Verses 1-3 all need to have the same number of lines, which (duh, but let’s say it anyway) is more than the number of lines in Verse 4.

Verses 1-3 can have anywhere from 6-10 lines each; just remember to make them all the same length. The usual number of lines for these verses is 8. (The rhyme scheme will help you keep track of this, actually. Hang on for a second.)

Verse 4 can have 4, 5 or 6 lines. The usual number is 4, but you don’t have to adhere to that. (But if you pick 6, remember that the other verses have to have more!).

rhyme

Y’all remember how to read and annotate rhyme schemes, right? If not, there’s a refresher in our instructional post on the triolet.

Now, there’s no absolute set rhyme scheme for a ballade, the way there is for a Spenserian or Shakespearian sonnet. You’re free to pick any scheme – or none at all – so long as the rhyme scheme for the first three verses is the same, and the fourth verse uses the same rhymes.

scansion?

The ballade doesn’t have to scan. On the other hand, because it originated in song, you may find that your ballade “feels better” to you if you use scansion and are careful with the emphasis in each line. Here’s a quick refresher on scansion if that’s your thing, but don’t feel trapped by iambic pentameter if you don’t enjoy it.

Just like the rhyme scheme, though, if one or two lines of your poem adhere to some kind of scansion, the rest should follow suit. Don’t make a ballade that half-scans; it will end up looking like you screwed half of it up and the reader won’t be able to tell which half.

No, really, about that last line

The last line of each verse is the same. That is, it has the same words, the same rhythm, the same everything. But. Because you get to lead into it with a different verse each time, you can actually give the same words a different meaning. Think about writing an ambiguous terminal line when you sit down to write your ballade, so that you and your reader don’t get bored.

What does that look like when you put it all together?

In just a second we’ll look at two very different ballades.

One, by Geoffrey Chaucer, adheres to a very strict scheme of rhyme and scansion (Ed’s note: it’s missing the final verse because the form wasn’t quite developed yet, ok? It was basically forever ago. I think my mom knew him.). Yes, it’s in Old English. No, a translation isn’t that necessary: try reading it out loud and pretending it was written by someone with genuinely terrible spelling and a thick Yorkshire accent. Even if you still can’t understand the words, you can see the way the rhymes and scansion come together, and you can identify the repeated line.

If you want to write a precise, classic-style ballade like that one, use an 8-line main verse with the rhyme scheme ababbcbC, and a four line last verse that rhymes bcbC. The capital C shows you where the refrain, or “matching line” is; the lowercase c is a line that rhymes with the refrain. Also, you’re probably stuck with iambic pentameter. #sorrynotsorry

The second ballade, by François Villon, is more freeform. Some of this, of course, can be chalked up to translation, but the style of translation shows what’s acceptable in the form, rather than trying to force the ballade back into a rhyme-and-scan prison that takes away the sense of the poem. Note that the first three stanzas have the same number of lines; the final stanza is short. Look for the repeated line, and how it changes meaning!

To Rosemounde
Geoffrey Chaucer, 1343 – 1400

Ma dame, ye ben of al beaute shryne
As fer as cercled is the mapamonde;
For as the cristall glorious ye shyne,
And lyke ruby ben your chekys rounde.
Therwyth ye ben so mery and so iocunde
That at a reuell whan that I se you dance,
It is an oynement vnto my wounde,
Thoght ye to me ne do no daliance.

For thogh I wepe of teres ful a tyne,
Yet may that wo myn herte nat confounde;
Your semy voys that ye so small out twyne
Makyth my thoght in ioy and blys habounde.
So curtaysly I go, wyth loue bounde,
That to my self I sey, in my penaunce,
Suffyseth me to loue you, Rosemounde,
Thogh ye to me ne do no daliaunce.

Nas neuer pyk walwed in galauntyne
As I in loue am walwed and iwounde;
For whych ful ofte I of my self deuyne
That I am trew Tristam the secunde.
My loue may not refreyde nor affounde;
I brenne ay in an amorouse plesaunce.
Do what you lyst, I wyl your thral be founde,
Thogh ye to me ne do no daliance.

Ballade [I die of thirst beside the fountain]
François Villon

I die of thirst beside the fountain
I’m hot as fire, I’m shaking tooth on tooth
In my own country I’m in a distant land
Beside the blaze I’m shivering in flames
Naked as a worm, dressed like a president
I laugh in tears and hope in despair
I cheer up in sad hopelessness
I’m joyful and no pleasure’s anywhere
I’m powerful and lack all force and strength
Warmly welcomed, always turned away.

I’m sure of nothing but what is uncertain
Find nothing obscure but the obvious
Doubt nothing but the certainties
Knowledge to me is mere accident
I keep winning and remain the loser
At dawn I say “I bid you good night”
Lying down I’m afraid of falling
I’m so rich I haven’t a penny
I await an inheritance and am no one’s heir
Warmly welcomed, always turned away.

I never work and yet I labor
To acquire goods I don’t even want
Kind words irritate me most
He who speaks true deceives me worst
A friend is someone who makes me think
A white swan is a black crow
The people who harm me think they help
Lies and truth today I see they’re one
I remember everything, my mind’s a blank
Warmly welcomed, always turned away.

Merciful Prince may it please you to know
I understand much and have no wit or learning
I’m biased against all laws impartially
What’s next to do? Redeem my pawned goods again!
Warmly welcomed, always turned away.

As you can see, Chaucer and Villon took the ballade in very different directions, despite working under the same constraints, the same poetic “recipe.” Where will you take yours? We’ll look forward to reading!