Alexandra Socarides, “What Happens When We Don’t Read Ballads Closely Enough: The Cautionary Tale of the American Woman Poet and the Ballad” (pp. 215–226)
This essay looks closely at two ballads by the nineteenth-century American poet Emma Embury in order to explore some of the ways in which the ballad’s use of the structural refrain enables a critique of its often-gendered content. By situating Embury’s poems within the context of the proliferation of the “bad woman ballads” that appeared in print in the first several decades of the nineteenth century, this essay explores her particular manipulations of the genre. In Embury’s ballads, the cautionary tale is housed in a refrain that is sung by a woman. This form works to make these women’s downfalls come true at the same time that it suggests a way out of this endlessly repeatable story that the genre performs so faithfully. This essay suggests that in our consideration of the genre, we pay particularly close attention to how women poets approached the ballad’s formal devices.