How to Write Poems – Chapter 7: The Ballad

Contents | Chapter 8: Unmetered Couplets

In this chapter, we will learn about a traditional form of poetry called the ballad. Then we will read a sample ballad. After that, we will do some exercises with a new ballad that covers the life of Ebenezer Scrooge, as described in the book A Christmas Carol.

The folk ballad has its roots in the oral tradition, and it was originally meant to be sung. The names of the authors of most of the folk ballads have been lost to time, and many of the folk ballads have come down to us in several forms and adaptations.

The ballad is usually a narrative poem, and it is usually written in quatrains (four-line stanzas). The most common form for the quatrain is that in which the rhyme scheme is xbxb (the second and fourth lines rhyme), and in which the first and third lines are in iambic tetrameter, and the second and fourth lines are in iambic trimeter. The quatrain looks like this (w = weakly stressed syllable; S = strongly stressed syllable):

wSwSwSwS

wSwSwS

wSwSwSwS

wSwSwS

The following Scottish ballad is called “The Two Brothers.” The ballad was collected by Francis James Child and published in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads in 1882. The original stanzas (in regular font) are followed by the same stanzas translated into more modern English (in italic font).

There were twa brithers at ae scule;

As they were coming hame,

Then said the ane until the other

‘John, will ye throw the stane?’

There were two brothers at one school;

As they were coming home,

Then said the one to the other

‘John, will you throw the stone?’

‘I will not throw the stane, brither,

I will not play at the ba;

But gin ye come to yonder wood

I’ll warsle you a fa.’

‘I will not throw the stone, brother,

I will not play at the ball;

But before you come to yonder wood

I’ll wrestle you a fall.’

The firsten fa young Johnie got,

It brought him to the ground;

The wee pen-knife in Willie’s pocket

Gied him a deadly wound.

The first fall young Johnie got,

It brought him to the ground;

The wee penknife in Willie’s pocket

Gave him a deadly wound.

‘Tak aff, tak aff my holland sark,

And rive it frae gore to gore,

And stap it in my bleeding wounds,

They’ll aiblins bleed noe more.’

‘Take off, take off my Holland shirt,

And tear it from gore to gore,

And cram it in my bleeding wounds,

Perhaps they’ll bleed no more.’

He pouit aff his holland sark,

And rave it frae gore to gore,

And stapt it in his bleeding wounds,

But ay they bled the more.

He pulled off his Holland shirt,

And tore it from gore to gore,

And crammed it in his bleeding wounds,

But oh they bled the more.

‘O brither, tak me on your back,

And bear me hence away,

And carry me to Chester kirk,

And lay me in the clay.’

‘O brother, take me on your back,

And bear me hence away,

And carry me to Chester church,

And lay me in the clay.’

‘What will I say to your father,

This night when I return?’

‘Tell him I’m gane to Chester scule,

And tell him no to murn.’

‘What will I say to your father,

Tonight when I return?’

‘Tell him I’ve gone to Chester school,

And tell him not to mourn.’

‘What will I say to your mother,

This nicht whan I gae hame?’

‘She wishd afore I cam awa

That I might neer gae hame.’

‘What will I say to your mother,

Tonight when I go home?’

‘She wished before I went away

That I might never go home.’

‘What will I say to your true-love,

This nicht when I gae hame?’

‘Tell her I’m dead and in my grave,

For her dear sake alane.’

‘What will I say to your true love,

Tonight when I go home?’

‘Tell her I’m dead and in my grave,

For her dear sake alone.’

He took him upon his back

And bore him hence away,

And carried him to Chester kirk,

And laid him in the clay.

He took him upon his back

And carried him hence away,

And carried him to Chester church,

And laid him in the clay.

He laid him in the cauld cauld clay,

And he cuirt him wi a stane,

And he’s awa to his fathers ha,

Sae dowilie alane.

He laid him in the cold cold clay,

And he covered him with a stone,

And he’s away to his father’s hall,

So sadly all alone.

‘You’re welcome, dear son,’ he said,

‘You’re welcome hame to me;

But what’s come o your brither John,

That gade awa wi thee?’

‘You’re welcome, dear son,’ he said,

‘You’re welcome home to me;

But what’s become of your brother John,

That went away with thee [you]?’

‘Oh he’s awa to Chester scule,

A scholar he’ll return;

He bade me tell his father dear

About him no to murn.’

‘Oh he’s away to Chester school,

A scholar he’ll return;

He asked me to tell his father dear

About him not to mourn.’

‘You’re welcome hame, dear son,’ she said,

‘You’re welcome hame to me;

But what’s come o your brither John,

That gade awa wi thee?’

‘You’re welcome home, dear son,’ she said,

‘You’re welcome home to me;

But what’s come of your brother John,

That went away with thee [you]?’

‘He bade me tell his mother dear,

This nicht when I cam hame,

Ye wisht before he gade awa,

That he might neer return.’

‘He asked me to tell his mother dear,

Tonight when I came home,

You wished before he went away,

That he might never return.’

Then next came up his true-love dear,

And heavy was her moan;

‘You’re welcome hame, dear Will,’ she said,

‘But whare’s your brither John?’

Then next came up his true love dear,

And heavy was her moan;

‘You’re welcome home, dear Will,’ she said,

‘But where’s your brother John?’

‘O lady, cease your trouble now,

O cease your heavy moan;

He’s dead and in the cauld cauld clay,

For your dear sake alone.’

‘O lady, cease your trouble now,

O cease your heavy moan;

He’s dead and in the cold cold clay,

For your dear sake alone.’

She ran distraught, she wept, she sicht,

She wept the sma birds frae the tree,

She wept the starns adoun frae the lift,

She wept the fish out o the sea.

She ran distraught, she wept, she sighed,

She wept the small birds from the tree,

She wept the stars down from the sky,

She wept the fish out of the sea.

‘O cease your weeping, my ain true-love,

Ye but disturb my rest;’

‘Is that my ain true lover John,

The man that I loe best?’

‘O cease your weeping, my own true love,

You but disturb my rest;’

‘Is that my own true lover, John,

The man that I love best?’

”Tis naething but my ghaist,’ he said,

‘That’s sent to comfort thee;

O cease your weeping, my true-love,

And ‘t will gie peace to me.’

‘It is nothing but my ghost,’ he said,

‘That’s sent to comfort thee [you];

O cease your weeping, my true love,

And it will give peace to me.’

Now we will look at a ballad that I have written about Scrooge. The ballad stanzas rhyme xbxb, the first and third lines have eight syllables, and the second and fourth lines have six syllables. However, the stanzas do not adhere to strict iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. If you wish, you can do the exercises as you read the poem. The difficulty of the exercises increases as you go along. Your answers don’t have to be the same as mine.

As Scrooge was walking down the street,

The snow and fog increased;

The weather could affect him not;

He was a cruel ____ .

Exercise: What word that rhymes with “increased” could go in the blank?

~

As Scrooge was walking down the street,

The snow and fog increased;

The weather could affect him not;

He was a cruel beast.

He was a cold and cruel beast;

His business partner died;

The final rites had been performed;

He had not even ____ .

Exercise: What word that rhymes with “died” could go in the blank?

~

He was a cold and cruel beast;

His business partner died;

The final rites had been performed;

He had not even cried.

The final rites had been performed,

But something did replace

The metal knocker on his door;

Did he see Marley’s ____?

Exercise: What word that rhymes with “replace” could go in the blank?

~

The final rites had been performed,

But something did replace

The metal knocker on his door;

Did he see Marley’s face?

Yes, he saw Marley come to him

Again, while in his bed,

And Scrooge doubted all that he saw;

He shivered, full of ____ .

Exercise: What word that rhymes with “bed” could go in the blank?

~

Yes, he saw Marley come to him

Again, while in his bed,

And Scrooge doubted all that he saw;

He shivered, full of dread.

And Scrooge doubted all that he saw;

“You’ll soon meet spirits three,”

Said Marley’s sad and troubled ghost,

“From which you cannot ____ .”

Exercise: What word that rhymes with “three” could go in the blank?

~

And Scrooge doubted all that he saw;

“You’ll soon meet spirits three,”

Said Marley’s sad and troubled ghost,

“From which you cannot flee.”

So Marley’s sad and troubled ghost

Did join its fellow race,

Spirits that cannot change the world;

They wander to ____ ____ .

Exercise: What two words could go in the blanks? There must be six syllables in the line, and the last word must rhyme with “race.”

~

So Marley’s sad and troubled ghost

Did join its fellow race,

Spirits that cannot change the world;

They wander to each place.

Those spirits cannot change the world,

But Scrooge awakened fast;

Before him stood a figure small—

The Ghost of ____ ____ .

Exercise: What two words could go in the blanks? There must be six syllables in the line, and the last word must rhyme with “fast.”

~

Those spirits cannot change the world,

But Scrooge awakened fast;

Before him stood a figure small—

The Ghost of Christmas Past.

The Ghost of Christmas Past did say,

“Now come along with me.”

And Scrooge saw many scenes of yore;

His young self he ____ ____ .

Exercise: What two words could go in the blanks? There must be six syllables in the line, and the last word must rhyme with “me.”

~

The Ghost of Christmas Past did say,

“Now come along with me.”

And Scrooge saw many scenes of yore;

His young self he did see.

So Scrooge saw many scenes of yore;

He couldn’t bear the sight;

His tears began to fall at last,

Until he slept ____ ____ .

Exercise: What two words could go in the blanks? There must be six syllables in the line, and the last word must rhyme with “sight.”

~

So Scrooge saw many scenes of yore;

He couldn’t bear the sight;

His tears began to fall at last,

Until he slept that night.

He slept but woke up that same night;

“It’s one o’clock again;

I have awakened just in time”;

And the ghost ____ ____ .

Exercise: What two words could go in the blanks? There must be six syllables in the line, and the last word must rhyme with “again.”

~

He slept but woke up that same night;

“It’s one o’clock again;

I have awakened just in time”;

And the ghost entered then.

The ghost appeared and showed to Scrooge,

Wherever they did go,

How Christmas cheer affected men,

And canceled each ____ ____ .

Exercise: What two words could go in the blanks? There must be six syllables in the line, and the last word must rhyme with “go.”

~

The ghost appeared and showed to Scrooge,

Wherever they did go,

How Christmas cheer affected men,

And canceled each one’s woe.

As they did go around the world,

They stopped at nephew’s house,

But even their thoughts of old Scrooge

_______________ spirits douse.

Exercise: How would you complete the line? The line must contain six syllables and end with the given words.

~

As they did go around the world,

They stopped at nephew’s house,

But even their thoughts of old Scrooge

Could not their spirits douse.

They returned from their worldly trip

As the midnight bell struck;

The ghost did go, but a new ghost

_________________ had snuck.

Exercise: How would you complete the line? The line must contain six syllables and end with the given words.

~

They returned from their worldly trip

As the midnight bell struck;

The ghost did go, but a new ghost

To Scrooge’s room had snuck.

To Scrooge’s room, the spirit came—

The ghost of days to come;

It pointed with its slender hand,

________________ and mum.

Exercise: How would you complete the line? The line must contain six syllables and end with the given words.

~

To Scrooge’s room, the spirit came—

The ghost of days to come;

It pointed with its slender hand,

But stayed withdrawn and mum.

It pointed with its slender hand;

The ghost, Scrooge greatly feared;

It showed him many secret things;

__________________ now appeared.

Exercise: How would you complete the line? The line must contain six syllables and end with the given words.

~

It pointed with its slender hand;

The ghost, Scrooge greatly feared;

It showed him many secret things;

In town they now appeared.

They overheard some speeches strange

Scrooge couldn’t understand;

But he suspected he should learn

____________ he scanned.

Exercise: How would you complete the line? The line must contain six syllables and end with the given words.

~

They overheard some speeches strange

Scrooge couldn’t understand;

But he suspected he should learn

A moral as he scanned.

He thought he should be learning it;

Next they went in a shop

Where three pawners had come with goods,

_________________ a swap.

Exercise: How would you complete the line? The line must contain six syllables and end with the given words.

~

He thought he should be learning it;

Next they went in a shop

Where three pawners had come with goods,

So they could make a swap.

The pawners took their goods from sacks;

They had all taken loot

From a dead man’s house and body;

_______________ his suit.

Exercise: How would you complete the line? The line must contain six syllables and end with the given words.

~

The pawners took their goods from sacks;

They had all taken loot

From a dead man’s house and body;

They even took his suit.

They had taken his things from him,

After he died alone;

They stripped him of all of his clothes,

_____________ prone.

Exercise: How would you complete the line? The line must contain six syllables and end with the given word.

~

They had taken his things from him,

After he died alone;

They stripped him of all of his clothes,

As he was lying prone.

And Scrooge did not know who it was

Who had died in bed there;

A sheet had been put on the corpse,

______________________ hair.

Exercise: How would you complete the line? The line must contain six syllables and end with the given word.

~

And Scrooge did not know who it was

Who had died in bed there;

A sheet had been put on the corpse,

Up to its head and hair.

The man had been left all alone,

But no one seemed to care;

And, except for Scrooge’s nephew,

____________________ spare.

Exercise: How would you complete the line? The line must contain six syllables and end with the given word.

~

The man had been left all alone,

But no one seemed to care;

And, except for Scrooge’s nephew,

They had no tears to spare.

The ghost took Scrooge to his office,

But Scrooge could not be seen;

There was a new man in his place,

_____________________ foreseen.

Exercise: How would you complete the line? The line must contain six syllables and end with the given word.

~

The ghost took Scrooge to his office,

But Scrooge could not be seen;

There was a new man in his place,

Whom Scrooge had not foreseen.

Then they went to an old churchyard

Where they saw a tombstone;

When Scrooge saw his name inscribed there,

______________________ groan.

Exercise: How would you complete the line? The line must contain six syllables and end with the given word.

~

Then they went to an old churchyard

Where they saw a tombstone;

When Scrooge saw his name inscribed there,

He sighed a painful groan.

When Scrooge saw his name inscribed there,

The ghost he did implore,

“Tell me I can change this future!”

___________________ more.

Exercise: How would you complete the line? The line must contain six syllables and end with the given word.

~

When Scrooge saw his name inscribed there,

The ghost he did implore,

“Tell me I can change this future!”

But it was seen no more.

“But I have not yet died,” thought Scrooge,

“I can change my life plan;

The future is not set in stone;

_________________________ .”

Exercise: Write the last line so that it ends with a rhyme for “plan” and contains six syllables.

~

“But I have not yet died,” thought Scrooge,

“I can change my life plan;

The future is not set in stone;

I will do what I can.”

“The future is not set in stone;

I must start a new job;

I must change my way of living;

_____________________________ !”

Exercise: Write the last line so that it ends with a rhyme for “job” and contains six syllables.

~

“The future is not set in stone;

I must start a new job;

I must change my way of living;

I’ll give a raise to Bob!”

So he changed his way of living;

He gave to Bob a raise;

And Bob, who could not believe it,

_____________________________ .

Exercise: Write the last line so that it ends with a rhyme for “raise” and contains six syllables.

~

So he changed his way of living;

He gave to Bob a raise;

And Bob, who could not believe it,

Thought Scrooge was in a craze.

And Scrooge visited his nephew,

And shared their dinner meal;

He never thought such simple things

_____________________________ .

Exercise: Write the last line so that it ends with a rhyme for “meal” and contains six syllables.

~

And Scrooge visited his nephew,

And shared their dinner meal;

He never thought such simple things

Could bring a joy so real.

Scrooge never thought such simple things

Could give his life such worth;

And as he walked on down the street,

_____________________________ .

Exercise: Write the last line so that it ends with a rhyme for “worth” and contains six syllables.

~

Scrooge never thought such simple things

Could give his life such worth;

And as he walked on down the street,

His heart was filled with mirth.

Here is the ballad in its entirety:

As Scrooge was walking down the street,

The snow and fog increased;

The weather could affect him not;

He was a cruel beast.

He was a cold and cruel beast;

His business partner died;

The final rites had been performed;

He had not even cried.

The final rites had been performed,

But something did replace

The metal knocker on his door;

Did he see Marley’s face?

Yes, he saw Marley come to him

Again, while in his bed,

And Scrooge doubted all that he saw;

He shivered, full of dread.

And Scrooge doubted all that he saw;

“You’ll soon meet spirits three,”

Said Marley’s sad and troubled ghost,

“From which you cannot flee.”

So Marley’s sad and troubled ghost

Did join its fellow race,

Spirits that cannot change the world;

They wander to each place.

Those spirits cannot change the world,

But Scrooge awakened fast;

Before him stood a figure small—

The Ghost of Christmas Past.

The Ghost of Christmas Past did say,

“Now come along with me.”

And Scrooge saw many scenes of yore;

His young self he did see.

So Scrooge saw many scenes of yore;

He couldn’t bear the sight;

His tears began to fall at last,

Until he slept that night.

He slept but woke up that same night;

“It’s one o’clock again;

I have awakened just in time”;

And the ghost entered then.

The ghost appeared and showed to Scrooge,

Wherever they did go,

How Christmas cheer affected men,

And canceled each one’s woe.

As they did go around the world,

They stopped at nephew’s house,

But even their thoughts of old Scrooge

Could not their spirits douse.

They returned from their worldly trip

As the midnight bell struck;

The ghost did go, but a new ghost

To Scrooge’s room had snuck.

To Scrooge’s room, the spirit came—

The ghost of days to come;

It pointed with its slender hand,

But stayed withdrawn and mum.

It pointed with its slender hand;

The ghost, Scrooge greatly feared;

It showed him many secret things;

In town they now appeared.

They overheard some speeches strange

Scrooge couldn’t understand;

But he suspected he should learn

A moral as he scanned.

He thought he should be learning it;

Next they went in a shop

Where three pawners had come with goods,

So they could make a swap.

The pawners took their goods from sacks;

They had all taken loot

From a dead man’s house and body;

They even took his suit.

They had taken his things from him,

After he died alone;

They stripped him of all of his clothes,

As he was lying prone.

And Scrooge did not know who it was

Who had died in bed there;

A sheet had been put on the corpse,

Up to its head and hair.

The man had been left all alone,

But no one seemed to care;

And, except for Scrooge’s nephew,

They had no tears to spare.

The ghost took Scrooge to his office,

But Scrooge could not be seen;

There was a new man in his place,

Whom Scrooge had not foreseen.

Then they went to an old churchyard

Where they saw a tombstone;

When Scrooge saw his name inscribed there,

He sighed a painful groan.

When Scrooge saw his name inscribed there,

The ghost he did implore,

“Tell me I can change this future!”

But it was seen no more.

“But I have not yet died,” thought Scrooge,

“I can change my life plan;

The future is not set in stone;

I will do what I can.”

“The future is not set in stone;

I must start a new job;

I must change my way of living;

I’ll give a raise to Bob!”

So he changed his way of living;

He gave to Bob a raise;

And Bob, who could not believe it,

Thought Scrooge was in a craze.

And Scrooge visited his nephew,

And shared their dinner meal;

He never thought such simple things

Could bring a joy so real.

Scrooge never thought such simple things

Could give his life such worth;

And as he walked on down the street,

His heart was filled with mirth.

Contents | Chapter 8: Unmetered Couplets