Her first cycle came like a flood
But it hasn’t been back since:
When she laments the lack of blood
All her bleeding, aching sisters wince;
She drove needles through her arms
to prick her womb at last awake
but the eggs ignored these silver charms
and her veins began to shiver and break.
They gave her another’s child to hold,
to silence the unheard voice far inside
but though it was warm she stayed cold
until the orphaned baby cried.
Now she’s mother to the motherless,
though her womb is still a dead end,
and though the newspaper calls her blessed,
to gain a child she lost a friend.
— Delilah Des Anges
Like the terza rima, the interlocking rhyme scheme of the traditional balladic form (ababcdcd etc), or quatrain, is an excellent tool for driving a narrative. The interlocking, repeating rhyme creates an expectation, both of the coming rhyme and what the rhyme may be, but as the quatrain does not bridge stanzas the way that terza rima does, if the poet is end-stopping the second b creates a pause at the end of each four-line unit (whether the stanzas are separate or not), which breaks down the overall narrative into bite-sized chunks. This both makes it easier to listen to, and to remember.
Ballads, especially, are intended to be sung or recited. Poetry is after all – although many people forget – the earliest form of long-form storytelling, preceding writing. It is the musical, cyclical rhythm and repeating rhyme scheme, the use of repeated phrases (“wine-dark sea” from The Iliad being a classic and indeed classical example) which allows the reciters of these poems to find their way through incredibly lengthy sagas.
This poetic form, being rather old, is also less rigid in its rules, and a-line-only or b-line-only ballads are quite common too: an example of a b-line long ballad would be Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
It is also a poetic form intended to be sung, and the rhyme scheme of abab is frequently encountered in song lyrics, which should surprise no one who remembers that once poetry and song were inextricably linked.
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