To this day, ballads are still enjoyed by some individuals; many generations ago they were at the very heart of amusement. Passed on orally, they centred such interesting subjects as tragic love. Typically, although ballads are fairly simple, in that they do not tend to focus on characterization, they have a rapid dialogue, and are usually in the form of quatrains, and rhyming in abcb. As a traditional ballad “Bonny Barbara Allan” employs these traditional qualities and conventions: it is written in quatrains with an abcb rhyming scheme pattern, employs rapid dialogues, displays a lack of characterization and deals with tragic love.
The most noticeable feature of this ballad is the four line stanzas rhyming in abcb. When the second and the fourth stanza are not actual rhyme, the poet uses an approximate rhyme. We can count three actual rhymes and six approximate rhymes. The opening quatrain’s first and second stanza consists of an approximate rhyme:
It was in and about the Martinmas time,
When the green leaves were a falling,
That Sir John Graeme, in the West Country,
Fell in love with Barbara Allan. (Line 1-4)
Other approximate rhyme can be found in the second, fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth quatrain as for the actual rhyme they are present in the third, seventh and ninth quatrain. The first actual rhyme is:
O hooly, hooly rose she up,
To the place where he was lying,
And when she drew the curtain by,
“Young man, I think you’re dying.” (Line 9-12)
The rapid dialogues create the impression that there is a causal link between Barbara Allan and Sir John Graeme although, they never speak directly to each other. It also creates a more dramatic tone. Before each dialogue, there is an introductory stanza which breaks the actual conversation into one that is being told; without those stanzas we would read “Young man, I think you’re dying.” (Line 12), “O it’s I’m sick, and very, very sick” (Line13).
We are provided with only vague time setting, season, and place. Perhaps, the most revealing is the “Martinmas time,” (Line 1) it is Christian feast observed in commemoration of the death and burial of Saint Martin of Tours and takes place on November 11. The “green leaves were a falling” (Line 2) also support the date since winter is the season trees do not have any leafs. The last indication is in the second stanza, “He sent his man down through the town” (Line 5) which suggest a small town because during the 14th century walking was the way people got by.
Throughout the poem, the importance of some words is emphasized by stress and repetition “slowly, slowly raise she up” to give us the impression that even as we read he movements becomes slower and slower. Furthermore, we can identify easily the tragic love present, again another typical element of ballads. We can notice this element especially in these two particular quatrains:
“O it’s I’m sick, and very, very sick,
And ’tis a’ for Barbara Allan:”
“O the better for me ye’s never be,
Tho you heart’s blood were a spilling. (Line 13-16)
“O dinna ye mind, you man,” said she,
“When ye was in the tavern a drinking,
That ye made the healths gae round and round,
And slighted Barbara Allan?” (Line 17-20)
In her stubbornness, Barbara Allan refuses to forgive Sir John Graeme for not toasting to her health even though she knows he is ill. She leaves him to die without complete peace; she holds this grudge against him until he passes away. Despite the grudge, her love is genuine and consequently she chooses to die for John. The action of dying for him is not explicitly stated, but we are not left guessing her fate for the poet uses symbolism, in particular the “bed,” to suggest a funeral.
All the elements needed for it to be a typical ballad are present. The format of the stanzas, the rhyming scheme, the attention paid to characterization, the speed of the dialogues, and the tragic love all correspond to the norm.