Ballad in Rhyming Quatrains
Being the considerate guy that he was, Thayer put the poem's form right there in the subtitle so that future generations of students wouldn't have to scour the internet trying to figure out what kind of poem "Casey at the Bat" is. Thanks, Ernest.
So, what makes "Casey…" a ballad (besides the fact that, you know, the epigraph tells us it's a ballad)? Glad you asked. Here are some basic ballad requirements that "Casey at the Bat" definitely meets:
- Dramatic Narrative: Ballads usually tell a story, focusing on one dramatic event, and the story is usually told in plain, everyday language. Casey definitely has these requirements covered. The poem has a cast of characters and a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. And "Casey…" doesn't send you running for the dictionary every other line.
- Song: Ballads were traditionally stories meant to be sung. The poem's epigraph, "Sung in the Year 1888 [our emphasis]," along with the poem's strong meter and rhyme, indicate a song-i-ness that fulfills this requirement quite nicely.
- Meter-Line-Stanza: Ballads are traditionally in iambic lines. Iambs are those little, two-syllable units that follow an unstressed-stressed syllable patten. They make that daDUM sound that seems to pop up so often in poetry. You can really hear those iambs right from the poem's very first line:
The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day.
Can you hear it? Read it aloud. Yes, really—we'll wait right here while you do… Nice work. Did you hear that daDUM daDUM daDUM pattern? That, friends, is the rhythm of the iambs—seven in all in this line.
In addition to those iambs, ballad lines follow a strict rhyme scheme and are grouped into four-line stanzas called quatrains. In "Casey at the Bat," the quatrains follow an AABB rhyme scheme, where each letter represents that line's end rhyme. Take a look at the end words from stanza one to see it in action:
To sum up: Dramatic story? Check. Iambs? Check. Rhyme? Check. Quatrains? You bet. It's looking pretty ballad-y up in here, right?
Now, there is something called "ballad meter," but Thayer didn't use it for "Casey…" Instead, he used iambic heptameter (that's just a fancy way of saying that there are 7 iambs per line), which means the lines in "Casey…" are longer than traditional ballad meter lines. Thayer also used a non-traditional ballad rhyme scheme for "Casey:" AABB instead of ABAB.
Thayer may have chosen to break away from a few of the more traditional aspects of the ballad form to give "Casey at the Bat" a slightly more contemporary feel, while still maintaining the familiarity of the ballad form. In a poem about baseball—a sport that's got tradition coming out of its ears—we think this traditional form is an appropriate choice, don't you?
Even if you don't, there's no denying that "Casey…" is a ballad—from cap to cleats.