Poetry Form - The Ballade

The Ballade Verse Form
by Ariadne Unst

* History. * Form. * Your Composition. * References.

The Ballade originated in France. It is a French rhymed and syllabic form. The Ballade's name derives from the Old French balade ("a dancing song").


The Ballade tradition as a poem first appeared in France.

One if its most famous practitioners was the French poet François Villon (1431-1463 or shortly after that).


A heavily rhymed form with consistent stanza size (number of lines and syllables). Variations on the form include (each with optional envoy having half the lines of a main stanza) are:

In a traditional Ballade:

  1. The stanzas are of fixed size (number of lines and syllables).
  2. A brief closing (and sometimes omitted) envoy has half the number of lines of the preceding stanzas.
  3. The stanzas and envoy comply with a strong end-rhyme scheme, one of the delights and challenges of this form.
  4. The same line reoccurs as a refrain at the end of each stanza and envoy.
  5. The shorter Ballade has 28 lines with only three rhymes (designated a, b, and c below) throughout.
  6. The longer Ballade (the Ballade Supreme) has 35 lines with only four rhymes (designated a, b, c, and d below) throughout.

  7. The two most traditional Ballade forms are:

    Length of first three stanzas 8 lines (an octave) 10 lines
    Length of final stanza (the "envoy") 4 lines (a quatrain) 5 lines
    syllables per line 8 syllables 10 syllables
    total number of rhymes in the poem 3 4
    rhyme scheme of first three stanzas (upper-case for refrain) ababbcbC ababbccdcD
    rhyme scheme of final stanza bcbC ccdcD

  8. Other forms are:
    1. The Double Ballade, which has six stanza of 8 lines
    2. The Double Ballade Supreme, which has six stanza of 10 lines
    3. Further variations, such as practiced by ( François Villon, who varied and extended the Ballade form in many ways, particularly by increasing the number of stanzas (or occasionally increasing the number of lines per stanza) while retaining the refrain and the dense use of repeating rhymes.

Your Composition.

The rhyme and repetition in a Ballade made this form popular with audiences. The form allowed the listener to catch the poem more clearly at first hearing or first reading.

Here are some steps to take in composing one:

  1. First make a free-write or rough prose draft of a page or two, exploring what you want to say.

  2. Look at the free-write for repetition of words or phrases. That might give you some options for the refrain and for the rhymes to be used.

  3. Look for rhyming words: you will need eight (8) 'a' rhymes and five (5) 'b' rhymes, in addition to the refrain.

  4. The common practice of using end-stopped rhymes may allow you to pull phrases from you writing in order to construct lines of the appropriate length but whose sequence you can alter if that helps the poem. Like packing an inflated helium balloon into a suitcase, tussle with modifying the sequence to tug the poem into shape.

  5. However, modern writers make more use of enjambment and of slant rhyme, for lively and less predictable poetry.

  6. As with all formal poems nowadays, it is vital that the form does not "drive" your poem. If the rhyme scheme and form begin to feel forced, then you must assert the poem's content.

A Last Word.

Just because you start with the intention of writing a Ballade, you do not have to keep your poem in that form if it does not work for you. Your attempt to write a formal poem may help you find words that you would not have found otherwise. And you may decide that you choose to end up with a poem in a different form, perhaps even a prose poem.


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