Ballad Measure in Print

by Bill Gahan (2007)

An important feature of any ballad in print is its meter. “Ballad measure,” sometimes called “ballad stanza” or “ballad meter,” can be strictly defined as four-line stanzas usually rhyming abcb with the first and third lines carrying four accented syllables and the second and fourth carrying three. Looser definitions describe ballad measure as consisting of quatrains with four or three stresses in each line and with an abcb or abab rhyme scheme. Although not all scholars can settle comfortably on the looser definition, virtually all of them supply a variant of such a description before qualifying it.

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics restricts this designation to those Scottish and English ballads compiled by Francis James Child in the nineteenth century, and contends that disputes about ballad measure focus on whether it is accentual or accentual-syllabic.1 With the former, the lines are scanned taking into account only the stressed syllables in determining rhythm. Accentual-syllabic verse counts both stressed and unstressed syllables within a line. Accentual meter is associated with older forms of English verse and song, and nursery rhymes serve to illustrate how stresses can drive the measure, as in “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” or “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”  The number of syllables in each line is not important for the rhythm, but the stresses follow a pattern. The following nursery rhyme is scanned accentually, with the stressed syllables indicated in bold type:

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full;

One for the mas-ter,
And one for the dame,
And one for the lit-tle boy
Who lives down the lane.

Now, scanning the following lines from the Pepys ballad, “Turners dish of Lentten stuffe” (1.206-207) as accentual, we find three stresses for the first two lines, four for the third, and three again for the last:

Ile please you if I can,
I will not be too long,
I pray you all attend a while,
and listen to my song.

However, the syllable count is clearly regular in this instance, having an equal number of stressed and unstressed syllables.

George R. Stewart argues in “Modern Metrical Technique as Illustrated by Ballad Meter” that ballad measure is primarily accentual-syllabic, and he assigns equal importance to the number of syllables as to the stresses in deciding whether the text fits a particular scheme. Stewart reads ballads after 1700 as essentially made up of metrical feet, but explains that these had reached a pivotal point of regularity, and points out that earlier ballads generally exhibit more variety.2 According to folklorist Tristram Coffin, early ballad measure was less regular because it strongly reflected the ancient Teutonic nature of English, which is stress-based, and the meters were not yet regularized by the influence of Church Latin and the poetry of Romance languages. By the time broadside ballads were being printed, they had developed enough to “have rhyme rather than alliteration as their main decoration,” but still recalled the stress-based origins of Anglo-Saxon verse. Coffin argues that ballads developed first from text and verse recitations and were only later regularized by music. His insistence that ballads are “poetry first of all” points to a crucial source of critical disagreement responsible for much confusion about ballads.3 The dispute stems from different perspectives taken by musicologists, linguists, folklorists, literary critics, and musicians in terms of whether a ballad is properly to be studied as poetry or song.

This confusion illustrates how the English popular ballad, dating from the fourteenth century or earlier, preserves traces of archaic forms now obscure. One thing that is clear is that its measure, rhythm, and general pattern are simple and repetitive, suggestive of its ancient origins from a largely illiterate society wherein songs and other mnemonic devices allowed for easy memorization of important events, histories, and legends. Other than this, consensus about the nature of ballad meter remains elusive. In addition to disagreement about whether to give priority to the musical or the literary aspects of the ballads, there are differences about metrical questions even among those who study ballads primarily as texts, as demonstrated by the first examples in this essay. And it certainly does not help that in the printed broadside ballads, exceptions to every rule abound. A generous attitude about defining ballads as equally song and verse is served well by an attendant awareness that those who study ballads primarily in print often subordinate or ignore their musical aspects, while those who see them primarily as songs and performances tend to discount their literary and other aesthetic manifestations.

Although J.W. Hendren, in A Study of Ballad Rhythm, takes into account both the musical and poetic aspects of ballads, most critics since have given primacy to either music or poetry, and some might contend that even Hendren privileges music.4 Consequently, their theories about ballads are affected, from the very definition of what to properly call a “ballad” to subsequent theories dependent upon that first categorization. For example, critic George Saintsbury puts forth the often-repeated theory that the ballad measure quatrain derives from the native “fourteener” couplet.5 This form is especially associated with Renaissance poetry, and is more in line with narrative verse than song. Its rhythm is derived from its standard meter, as opposed to being driven by a previously-learned tune wherein the stresses can be sung with a little more leeway in terms of syllable count. Thus, its regular fourteen syllables, or seven iambic feet per line, make it stichic (meter-based), not strophic (music-based). Of course, once a tune is associated with any verse, then discovering which came first, or even which to emphasize most, can be very difficult.

Typical of how song and verse become interrelated in critical discourse, some critics contend that English ballad measure originally derived from fourteen-syllable lines used in Latin church hymns. These experts note that medieval priests broke couplets of these long lines into four, and the internal rhyme of the previous form was now laid out in separate lines. This divided the two fourteen-syllable lines into four lines of anywhere between six to eight syllables each, with four or three stresses per line.6 Perringer and Brogan assert that many doubt this theory, finding it unlikely that English songs tied mainly to oral tradition and sung by the illiterate would themselves be derivations of sacred Latin hymns.7 However, it is easy to see how the popular and the sacred had likely influenced each other: people of all degrees of literacy heard and sometimes sang hymns from the Mass, and religious holiday entertainments included “ecclesiastical ballads” in English and Latin as early as the thirteenth century.8 Further, the substitution of secular verses to accompany sacred musical hymns, known as contrafactum, was already a common practice by the early middle ages.

In another example of contrafactum, this time moving in the other direction, early modern Protestant hymn writers put the Psalms to the tune and rhythm of popular ballads. First published in 1562, The whole booke of Psalmes collected into Englysh metre, by Thomas Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others, states in its title page that the collection lays aside “all ungodly Songes and Ballades, which tende only to the norishing of vyce, and corrupting of youth.”  These new hymns ultimately found a place in church songbooks. The meter of these songs was regularized, often with a key in the front or back of the hymnal. The most common meter was “common measure,” which is again a quatrain of alternating four and three stresses, as in this rendition from Psalm 23:9

Yea, though I walk in vale of death,
yet will I fear no ill:
Thy rod and staff do comfort me,
and thou art with me still.

(iambic tetrameter)
(iambic trimeter)
(iambic tetrameter)
(iambic trimeter)

Critics Harmon and Holman see the above measure, rhyming abcb, as identical to what should be considered “ballad meter” (notice it coincides with the quick definition supplied in the opening of this essay). The similarity of meter from various sources can point to common origins, result from coincidences, or both. For example, “poulter’s measure,” though often associated with Latin elegiac verse, is thought by some to have developed from the “ballad quatrain”; poulter’s measure scans as lines of alternating twelve and fourteen syllables, which were sometimes used by Wyatt, Surrey, and later by Southwell. When these two lines are broken down into four-line quatrains of three or four stresses each, they form what is known as “short measure” or “hymn meter,” and we have come full circle: “hymn meter” is used to describe “ballad meter” by The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which cautions that a complete and careful study of ballad measure has yet to be accomplished.10


1 Alex Perringer and T.V.F. Brogan, “Ballad Meter,” in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993), 118.

2 George Rippey Stewart, “Modern Metrical Technique as Illustrated by Ballad Meter (1700-1920” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1922), 25.

3 Tristram P. Coffin, “Remarks Preliminary to a Study of Ballad Meter and Ballad Singing,” The
Journal of American Folklore 78.308 (1965), 149-53.

4 Joseph William Hendren, A Study of Ballad Rhythm, with Special Reference to Ballad Music (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936).

5 George Saintsbury, History of English Prosody, 2 vols. (New York: Russell and Russell, 1963) 3:60.

6 Paull Baum, The Principles of Versification (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929), 87; Jakob Schipper, History of English Versification (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), 195-196; Clement Wood, Poets’ Handbook (New York: Greenberg Publisher, 1940), 66-69.

7 Perringer and Brogan, “Ballad Meter,” 119.

8 Wood, Poets’ Handbook, 66.

9 Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins, et al., The whole booke of Psalmes collected into Englysh
metre (London, 1562), in Early English Books Online, University of California Libraries, 13 Feb 2007 .

10 Perringer and Brogan, “Ballad Meter,” 120.

Works Consulted

Baum, Paull Franklin. The Principles of English Versification. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929.

Coffin, Tristram P. “Remarks Preliminary to a Study of Ballad Meter and Ballad Singing.” The Journal of American Folklore 78.308 (1965): 149-53.

Daiches, David. A Critical History of English Literature, 2 vols. New York: The Roland Press, 1960.

Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature. 8th ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Hendren, Joseph William. A Study of Ballad Rhythm, with Special Reference to Ballad Music. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936.

McNeill, Fiona. “Ballads.” Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature. Ed. David Scott Kastan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.

Myers, Jack, and Don Wukasch. The Longman Anthology of Poetic Terms. Denton, TX: U. of Texas Press, 2003.

Perringer, Alex, and T.V.F. Brogan. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.

Pound, Louis. “The English Ballads and the Church.” PMLA 35.2 (1920): 161-188.

Sainstbury, George. A History of English Prosody. 3 vols. New York: Russell and Russell, 1961.

Schipper, Jakob. A History of English Versification. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910.

Shepard, Leslie. The Broadside Ballad: A Study in Origins and Meaning. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1962.

Sternhold, Thomas, John Hopkins et al. The whole booke of Psalmes collected into Englysh metre. London, 1562. Early English Books Online. Univ. of California Libraries. 13 Feb 2007. http://eebo.chadwyck.com.

Stewart, George Rippey. “Modern Metrical Technique as Illustrated by Ballad Meter (1700-1920).” Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1922.

Wood, Clement. Poets’ Handbook. New York: Greenberg Publisher, 1940.