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Types of Poetry for AP English Literature

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Apr 4, 2011

Because of its personal nature poetry has evolved into many different forms, each with its own unique purpose and components. What follows is an examination of the most often encountered forms.

Most poetry falls into one of two major categories. Narrative poetry tells a story. Lyric poetry presents a personal impression.

The Ballad

The ballad is one of the earliest poetic forms. It is a narrative that was originally spoken or sung and has often changed over time. It usually:

  • Is simple.
  • Employs dialogue, repetition, minor characterization.
  • Is written in quatrains.
  • Has a basic rhyme scheme, primarily a b c b.
  • Has a refrain which adds to its songlike quality.
  • Is composed of two lines of iambic tetrameter which alternate with two lines of iambic trimeter.

The subject matter of ballads varies considerably. Frequently, ballads deal with the events in the life of a folk hero, like Robin Hood. Sometimes they retell historical events. The supernatural, disasters, good and evil, love and loss are all topics found in traditional ballads.

The following is a typical folk ballad. Read this poem out loud. Listen to the music as you read. Get involved in the story. Imagine the scene. Try to capture the dialect or sound of the Scottish burr.

Bonny Barbara Allan

by Anonymous

After you've read the ballad, consider the following:

    It was in and about the Martinmas time,
    When the green leaves were falling,
    That Sir John Graeme, in the West Country,
    Fell in love with Barbara Allan.
      He sent his man down through the town,
      To the place where she was dwelling:
      "O haste and come to my master dear,
      Gin ye be Barbara Allan."
      O hooly, hooly rose she up,
      To the place where he was lying,
      And when she drew the curtain by:
      "Young man I think you're dying."
      "O it's I'm sick, and very, very sick,
      And 'tis a' for Barbara Allan."
      O the better for me ye's never be,
      Though your heart's blood were a-spilling.
      "O dinna ye mind, young man," said she,
      When ye was in the tavern a drinking,
      That ye made the healths gae round and round,
      And slighted Barbara Allan?"
      He turned his face unto the wall,
      And death was with him dealing:
      "Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all,
      And be kind to Barbara Allan."
      And slowly, slowly raise she up,
      And slowly, slowly left him,
      And sighing said, she could not stay,
      Since death of life had reft him.
      She had not gane a mile or twa,
      When she heard the dead-bell ringing,
      And every jow that the dead bell geid,
      It cried, "Woe to Barbara Allan."
      "O mother, mother, make my bed!
      O make it saft and narrow!
      Since my love died for me to-day,
      "I'll die for him to-morrow."
  1. Check the rhyme scheme and stanza form. You should notice it is written in quatrains. The rhyme scheme is a little tricky here; it depends on pronunciation and is what is called a forced rhyme. If you soften the "g" sound in the word "falling," it more closely rhymes with "Allan." Try this throughout the ballad, recognizing that the spoken word can be altered and stretched to fit the intention of rhyme. This falls under the category of "poetic license."
  2. Follow the plot of the narrative. Poor Barbara Allan, poor Sir John. They are a classic example of thwarted young lovers, a literary pattern as old as Antigone and Haemon or Romeo and Juliet. Love, unrequited love, and dying for love are all universal themes in literature.
  3. Observe the use of repetition and how it unifies the poem by sound and structure. "Barbara Allan/Hooly, hooly/Adieu, adieu/Slowly, slowly/Mother, mother."
  4. Notice that dialogue is incorporated into the poem for characterization and plot development.

The Ballad

Here are some wonderfully wicked and enjoyable ballads to read:

      "Sir Patrick Spens"—the tragic end of a loyal sailor
      "The Twa Corbies"—the irony of life and nature
      "Edward"—a wicked, wicked, bloody tale
      "Robin Hood"—still a great, grand adventure
      "Lord Randall"—sex, lies, and death in ancient England
      "Get Up and Bar the Door"—a humorous battle of the sexes
      "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"—John Keats's fabulous tale of a demon lover

Have you read ballads? Traditional or modern? List them here. Jot down a few details or lines to remind you of important points. If you're musical, try singing one out loud.

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