A ballad in literature is a narrative poem that usually tells a dramatic story. Early ballads in English and Irish literature that were handed down orally are folk ballads; their authors are unknown. Ballads that are composed as literary works by identified authors are literary ballads. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a literary ballad by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one that tells a very enthralling story of supernatural events on a ship at sea.
Traditionally, ballads are composed in four-line stanzas. They follow a set pattern of rhythm.
- The first and third lines are iambic tetrameter, meaning they follow a weak/strong pattern of rhythm; each line has four strong beats as the syllables of the words are pronounced.
- The second and fourth lines are iambic trimeter, meaning they follow the weak/strong pattern of rhythm, but each line has three strong beats.
Coleridge's poem follows this ballad structure with few exceptions. Here is the poem's third stanza with the strong beats underlined:
(1) He holds him with his skinny hand.
(2) "There was a ship," quoth he.
(3) "Hold off! unhand me, graybeard loon!"
(4) Eftsoons his hand dropped he.
When you read the lines aloud, it is easy to hear the rhythm in them, like beats on a drum: four beats in lines 1 and 3; 3 beats in lines 2 and 4.
Also, ballads have a definite rhyme scheme with the second and fourth lines rhyming. In the stanza above, the second and fourth lines both end in "he," but that counts! Other stanzas show perfect rhymes in the second and fourth lines: three/me; kin/din; still/will, for example, the pairs of rhymes from the first, second, and fourth stanzas of the poem.
Coleridge's poem doesn't follow perfect ballad structure. Some stanzas have six lines, but they do follow the same pattern of alternating lines in the rhythm pattern. Overall, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is an excellent example of a literary ballad: It tells a very dramatic story and closely conforms to the patterns of rhyme and rhythm.
There is, however, something unusual about it. It is an example of a lyrical ballad, a new literary form created by Coleridge and English poet William Wordsworth. As a lyrical ballad, the speaker (in this case the old mariner) expresses his feelings and shares his thoughts as the story is told.