Ballads have been a popular invention of troubadours since the inception of poetry. A ballad is a folksong typically with a tragic ending or a lover’s getting married ending. This paper will break down the ballad of Bonnie Barbara Allen in a stanza by stanza presentation, as well as present how the ballad’s story pertains to modernity through folk singing. Ballads are an interpretation of a common emotion. In Barbara Allen the main characters are Barbara and Sir John Graeme.
Sometimes the ballad shifts in the man’s name; in other versions of this same ballad the man is called Willie Grove, sweet Willie Graeme, Sweet William, Jemmye Grove (Diary of Pepys paragraph 4). With such differences in names to describe the man in this ballad, and by use of the adjective ‘sweet’ to describe him, it may be surmised that the sympathies of the ballad-singer as well as the audience, lie with the man in the story and not with Barbara Allen. It is no doubt that in this ballad, the female is given the characteristic of being cruel.
This is shown as her eventually leaving Sir John Graeme on his deathbed without returning his love. She spurns him because he slighted her in a public tavern (some versions are different) and it is this slight which makes her maintain her cruelty. Sir John Graeme dies, and Barbara Allen is so stricken with grief that she too dies (in some versions of the ballad, either lovers grave grows a rose and a thorn and they intertwine, and in another version Sir John Graeme dances on Barbara Allen’s grave). The theme of the ballad is quite perceptibly about forgiveness.
In essence, as with most ballads, Barbara Allen tries to moralize the story under the cruelest conditions. In analysis the creativity of the ballad through use of word choice, setting and narrative, the reader is bombarded with Old English (for the ballad was created in the 12th century when it was written into Pepys’ Diary of Ballads, but had been travelling through England, Scotland and Ireland via oral tradition hundreds of years prior to it being written down). The first stanza places the listener or reader in a timeframe (Martinmas time, or November 11th (Wollstadt 315)).
In the setting of the scene the singer goes on to describe that the ‘green leaves were a falling’ (Pepys paragraph 1). Although the first stanza tells of John’s love for Barbara, there is an immediate swift change of scene from love to death between the 1st and 2nd stanza (Oliver 10-11). Barbara is bid to come to the ‘my master dear’ (Pepys paragraph 1). The symbolism of the green leaves falling and of John’s body being so close to death represents a great use of metaphor by the writer. What should also be noted is that typically when a leaf falls, it is not in fact green, but of various colours including red, yellow, orange.
This is because the chlorophyll has been ‘sucked’ back into the tree for the winter (it’s like the tree harvesting health for the upcoming colder months). Thus, for the green leaves to be falling would suggest that the tree has suffered some plight instead of them falling simply because of the season. This allusion of the ballad mirrors John’s broken heart (Oliver 11-12). He is a young man, in the prime of his days, but he dies of a broken heart. What is of further interest is that a tree will keep the green in its leaves, even when the tree is dying of what is called ‘heart rot”.
Thus, the reader is prepared for the upcoming scene of sorrow for both John and Barbara. The 3rd stanza reveals a somewhat cold Barbara Allen. She does go to John’s side, on his bequest, and when she arrives, all the ballad says, she says, “’Young man, I think you’re dying’” (Pepys paragraph 1). The motions with which she uses to go to John’s deathbed are very revealing to the reader. The stanza relays that she slowly (hooly) got up upon being requested to John’s side. We must assume she knew he was dying, or that she was reluctant to see him, because of the way she feels he slighted her.
However, upon the true revelation of John’s state of death, all she can say is “Young man, I think you’re dying” (Pepys paragraph 1). It is in the 4th stanza that the reader is revealed to John’s state: He’s dying of a broken heart. This is an actual medical concern known as of takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome. It may safely assumed that this is indeed what is the death of Sir John Graeme, for, upon Barbara Allen leaving him, without returning his love, the death toll rings. In turn then, Barbara Allen may also have died from takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
Sir John’s statement further supports this notion as in the 4th stanza he states, “I’m sick…/And tis a for Barbara Allan” (Pepys paragraph 1). If John’s heart truly is breaking, it does so in the 5th stanza as Barbara states that she doesn’t love him (or hides it because she’s angry with him) because of the injustice she feels she suffered at the tavern when John ‘slighted’ her. The 4th and the 5th stanza’s are full of dialogue and not much narrative. This is done in order to get the back story of these two people and to know the emotional reasoning for Barbara’s actions.
The narrative of the 6th stanza reveals more the dialogue between the couple as revealed in their actions. John turns his face to the way when Barbara tells of why she doesn’t love him. This action may be interpreted as being shame on John’s part for what he did while drinking at a tavern. The entire 6th stanza in fact reads like a domestic dispute reconciliation (or what may be a reconciliation). What is interesting to note is that John doesn’t ask for forgiveness from Barbara for what he may or may not have done while he may or may not have been drunk.
Thus, in turn, Barbara doesn’t forgive him. Thus, the theme of forgiveness comes back into play; meaning, if either one had forgiven the other, perhaps their hearts would not have broken. However, both characters have too much pride to ask for forgiveness and thus they inevitably befall a tragic ending. It is interesting to not however that while John is dying his last request is for people to be kind to Barbara Allen, which signifies his fault as well as her stubbornness. (i. e.
because she wouldn’t grant a dying man his last wish). The repetition in the 7th stanza of Barbara moving slowly leaving John was seen early in the ballad when she slowly came to see him. Thus, once she was slow to see him and now she is reluctant to leave him. It is in the 7th stanza that the reader begins to see the human side of Barbara Allen appear. It is with this movement and her statement in the 9th stanza of dying tomorrow, that the reader may begin to sympathize with the woman.
Her cruelty can only be redeemed through her dying as well, and it is in her death that the reader realizes that she did love John, but could not forgive a man who did not ask for forgiveness. Works Cited Diary of Samuel Pepys. Barbara Allen. (2009). Online. 29 March 2009. < http://www. pepysdiary. com/p/9570. php> Oliver, Mary. Poetry Handbook. (1994). Harvest Books. New York. Wollstadt, Lynn. Controlling Women: “Reading Gender in the Ballads Scottish Women Sang” Western Folklore, vol. 61, no. ? (Autumn 2002). Pp. 295-317.
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