In the most commonly accepted versions of the poem “Barbara Allan,” there are several characters in the poem, all of whom have roles, albeit small in some cases, to play in the poem. However, the two main characters, Barbara Allan and Sir John, do more than play the most important roles. These two also clearly demonstrate the use of tragedy and metaphor in the poem, while also contributing to the way in which the poem demonstrates what a ballad is.
The poem may be entitled “Barbara Allen,” but the first character the narrator introduces is Sir John Graeme, and the first thing the reader learns about Sir John is that he “[f]ell in love with Barbara Allan.” At the outset, no hint of tragedy attends this simple fact. However, the first hint of trouble comes when the narrator relates that Sir John has sent his man – which probably means a butler or manservant – to see Barbara Allan. The man finds Barbara Allan and bids her “haste and come to my master dear.” It seems that if Sir John were truly in love and able to go to Barbara himself, he would; the fact that he does not suggests that he is not able to go. In fact, Barbara discovers that Sir John is dying and says as much: “Young man, I think you’re dying.” Tragedy begins to strike, though not fully yet: Sir John is on his deathbed but is not dead yet.
When he seeks comfort from Barbara Allan – though somewhat rudely, basically telling her he wishes she’d never been born – she scorns him, though it is hard to blame him, given what Barbara reveals that Sir John did. She reveals that she knows about him drinking at the pub and “that ye made the healths gae round and round, / And slighted Barbara Allan.” In other words, despite his avowals of love to her, he had been unkind, and she felt little remorse (at this point) about his plight. In this case, tragedy attends their exchange; had he not been unkind about her, she might have comforted him on his deathbed.
But because of his unkindness, she feels justified in being unkind, and the young Sir John dies: “Since death of life had reft him.” It is also a tragedy for a young man to die – a young man who had all of life ahead of him. Tragedy begins to descend upon Barbara at this point. Upon hearing the “dead-bell ringing” – that is, the church bells ringing for Sir John’s funeral – she is struck with remorse. She hears in every ring of the bell “Woe to Barbara Allan!” She feels that her death, too, is near – presumably from a broken heart, like Sir John. She arrives home and tells her mother to make her bed “saft and narrow” – a coffin – for her “love died for me to-day / I’ll die for him to-morrow.” Another young person faces death in the course of the poem, and both appear to die because of their unkindness to someone it turns out they loved. These two young people would not be together in life – they would only be joined in death, driving home the tragic nature of the poem.
The tragic deaths of Barbara and Sir John are foreshadowed by a very telling metaphor at the beginning of the poem. The narrator, in setting the stage, tells the reader that the events in the poem happened during Martinmas (November) “[w]hen the green leaves were a falling.” Barbara and Sir John, both young individuals, die and/or are dying within the story of the poem; they are the green leaves which fall, still green.
All of these elements together contribute to the construction of the content of the poem as a ballad. Structurally, the poem has all the marks of a ballad – a singsong sort of rhythm, rhyming stanzas, and the frequent repetition of Barbara’s name as a refrain. The story of Barbara and Sir John is not only a love story but also a tragedy, and ballads frequently focus on love stories and tragedies; this poem provides two for the price of one.
The characters of Barbara and Sir John are tragic, as are their stories. Between the content of the poem – that is, the tragedy of their love story – and the poem’s structure, the fact that “Barbara Allan” is a ballad emerges clearly. The characters portray tragedy, as well as metaphor, and the whole together makes clear that “Barbara Allan” is very much a ballad.