THROUGH the centuries English verse in a variety of forms has reached a large audience through broadsides, newspapers, magazines, and vocal performance. Only recently has popular verse received attention in classrooms and academic journals.
Among topics little taught in the classroom, the traditional ballad has been one of the most continuously researched. Although the word ballad initially referred to dance, the ballad of tradition is a story set to music, passed orally among the "folk" from generation to generation. Immemorial in origin and transmitted also by writing and printing, ballads were preserved at crucial stages, through singers unable to read, by memory. Francis James Child, for his English and Scottish Popular Ballads ( 1882- 1896), found variants in manuscripts of the thirteenth through the nineteenth centuries. A large portion of the most continuously admired ballads appeared with various degrees of polish in Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry ( 1765), which alerted Burns, Scott, Wordsworth, and Coleridge to the beguiling force of "folk" balladry. Before Child, sophisticated poets learned from balladry much as prominent twentieth-century artists were to learn from African sculpture. Ballads have exceeded every other source in pervasive influence on poetry of the last two centuries; the trail from the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge is unbroken.
Revered for their simplicity, traditional ballads show more often than tell; in telling, they usually avoid straightforward narrative. Often they convey a crucial detail only implicitly; the listener must be alert enough to supply the linchpin. Protagonist and speaker are often the same. As