The ballad as a literary genre: studies toward a redefinition
Baker, Thomas LeRoy
Weissenbenger, Klaus H. M.
Master of Arts
Literary critics disagree over a satisfactory definition for the literary ballad and over the degree of its indebtedness to similar forms such as the Bunkelsang or bench ballad, the popular ballad and the chanson. The problem is compounded when discussion turns to contemporary ballads believed either to have developed from literary ballads or from the early twentieth-century chanson. This study attempts to clarify the issue by comparing the compositional principles in each of the forms in order to determine whether they constitute a single literary genre. Because poets of the literary ballad were influenced by earlier models, representative bench and popular ballads were examined first. The chanson and the contemporary ballad, which are interpreted as reactions to more traditional forms, concluded the analysis of ballad types. The chronological sequence allows one to consider both the historical development of a genre and to compare the structures of the different forms. These forms are related to one another to the degree that they exhibit an antithetical structure characteristically present on two levels: 1) contextually, in the confrontation between the hero and a higher order; 2) formally, in the division between narrative stanza and refrain. The confrontation is usually resolved by the protagonist's submission to a higher authority. Thus, the plot of the bench ballad deals with an individual who inevitably submits to the moral code accepted by the majority. Although the hero of the popular ballad ultimately submits to a higher authority, greater prominence is given to the expression of personal emotions. In literary ballads, the antithetical structure usually presents an acute contrast between the individual and the macrocosm. In the chanson, the antithesis is between an unconventional subject and conventional middle-class values. Contemporary poets employ the antithetical ballad structure to question traditionally accepted faith in a higher order and to affirm the validity of existential uniqueness. Comparative analysis of structure in the bench ballad, popular ballad, literary ballad, chanson, and contemporary ballad suggests that a redefinition of the genre may be possible.