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Narrative Poetry: The Ballad Sarah Law Poetic Forms & Genres
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Remember we have a broad division of poetry into three main genres: epic (narrative), dramatic and lyric. Narrative poetry tells a story. Nowadays the novel is the dominant literary form, so it’s easy to forget that telling stories in prose was preceded by narrative poetry Story telling in verse began as an oral rather than a literary form. It was spoken or sung by a poet or bard, and it was heard by a live audience. Both the ballad and the epic had these oral origins. Sarah Law Poetic Forms & Genres
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Sarah Law Poetic Forms & Genres Both the ballad and the epic have long histories as spoken communal forms, (‘ orature ’), before they were finally written down. The ballads only began to be collected in the 18 th and 19 th centuries. One sign of the fact that ballads were orally transmitted for a long time is that many ballads exist in multiple forms. Oral poetry contains elements of improvisation
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Sarah Law Poetic Forms & Genres In some epic poems, we have interesting descriptions of a bard actually performing a recitation. E.g. from Beowulf : At times the scop, a thane of the king, glorying in words, the great old stories, who remembered them all, one after another, song upon song, found new words, bound them up truly, began to recite Beowulf's praise, a well-made lay of his glorious deed, skillfully varied his matter and style, He sang all he knew of famous Sigemund, his feats of courage, many strange things, the Waelsing's strife, far-off journeys feuds and crimes unknown to men The scop (bard) here is depicted as remembering the old stories, but finding new words for them ‘skilfully varying the matter and the style’.
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The poet would have had the basic structure and plot in his mind, but would vary the actual language from telling to telling, and to aid him he would use certain devices, or what scholars call oral formulae . A formula is a stock phrase, stock sequence of lines or stock plot mechanism. E.g. The phrase ‘Once upon a time’ is a stock phrase Sarah Law Poetic Forms & Genres
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swefan aefter symble (asleep after banquet) grim and graedig (fierce and ravenous) reoc and rede (savage and reckless) formulaic features are found in all oral poetry, including the ballad Sarah Law Poetic Forms & Genres
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