A ballad is a song. Think boy bands and chest-thumping emotion. Maybe a few tears.
But in poetry, a ballad is also an ancient form of storytelling. In the wayback days, common people didn't get their stories from books—they were sung as musical poems. Because they are meant to convey information, ballads usually have a simple rhythm and a consistent rhyme scheme. They often tell the story of everyday heroes, and some poets, like Bob Dylan, continue to set them to music.
Many (though not all) ballads are written in a little something we like to call ballad meter (creative, we know), which consists of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. That means they sound a little something like this (ahem): daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM / daDUM daDUM daDUM.
If that sounds eerily familiar, well, it should. This meter is a classic, an old stand-by, and tons of poems, ballads, hymns, and other songs were written in it—songs like "Amazing Grace" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." In fact, you can sing ballad poems to the tune of these songs, if you really wanted to. Check out Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I could not stop for Death" and see if you can carry the tune. We'll look for you on YouTube.
You'll find plenty of other ballads here at Shmoop. Check out our analysis of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's thrilling "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" or John Keats's chilling "La Belle Dame Sans Merci".