William Butler Yeats

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Justify the title of W.B. Yeats' poem "The Ballad of Father Gilligan."

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A traditional folk ballad is usually told in a direct or dramatic manner with a specific form: 

  • quatrains (four-line stanzas)
  • the lines alternate between four stresses and three stresses
  • the second and fourth lines usually rhyme
  • the rhythm is heavily iambic

Here's the first stanza of "The Ballad of Father Gilligan":

The old priest Peter Gilligan
Was weary night and day;
For half his flock were in their beds,
Or under green sods lay.

The stanza is a quatrain, the first and third lines have four stresses while the second and fourth lines have three, the second and fourth lines rhyme, and the rhythm is iambic. 

To explain briefly:

  • The old priest Peter Gilligan

The emboldened syllables are stresses.  Four are present in this first line, and the stresses create iambic metrical feet.  The line is scanned as follows:  - / - / -/ - /.  The hyphens mark unstressed syllables, and the slashes mark stressed syllables.  An iamb is a metrical foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, scanned like so:  - /.  The line contains four iambs.  The line following this one contains only three stresses:  wear-, night, and day. 

Day and lay of the second and fourth lines rhyme, while the concluding words of the first and third lines do not. 

The number of stresses and the length of the lines create the effect of the even numbered lines completing the thoughts of the odd numbered lines.  Thus, "Was weary night and day" completes the thought introduced by "The old priest Father Gilligan." 

This poem is clearly a ballad.  And since it tells of an incident in the life of Father Gilligan, it would seem that the title is justified. 

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This makes sense because a ballad is a piece of poetry that is written as a narrative and is often sung.  This poem is clearly a narrative.  It is telling, in an orderly manner, what has happened in a given incident.

It makes sense to call it the ballad of Father Gilligan because he is the main character.  He is almost the only person who is seen in the whole poem and it centers around things that happen to him.

Since the poem is a narrative and it is about things that happen to and around Father Gilligan, this title makes sense.

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