Verse Forms and Stanza Forms

A sequence of lines within a poem are often separated into sub-units, the stanza. Two aspects of stanza form are particularly relevant for the analysis of poetry: First, a stanza form is always used to some purpose, it serves a specific function in each poem. There are no general rules about such functions, the student or critic analysing the poem has to decide in each case afresh which is the function in the particular poem he or she is dealing with. (For an example of function see the SO WHAT section below). Second, well-known stanza forms stand in a certain tradition. The sonnet for instance started its career in English poetry as a love poem. When John Donne starts using the sonnet for religious topics he places himself within a tradition of love poetry. The very choice of the form contributes to the intensely personal explorations of the speaker's relation to God in Donne’s religious sonnets. It is thus useful to be aware of the origin and history of a stanza form, since this enables one to judge whether a poet makes use of a tradition or writes against it. (See Saintsbury 1923 for a comprehensive and Fussell 1967 for a slightly shorter overview of the historical dimensions of certain stanza forms).

There are a great number of different stanza forms available to a poet writing in the English (and that generally means European) tradition. The main ones are given in the following list.

Stichic verse is a continuous run of lines of the same length and the same metre. Most narrative verse is written in such continuous lines. Lyric poetry, because it is closer to song, usually uses stanzas.

As wreath of snow, on mountain-breast
Slides from the rock that gave it rest,
Poor Ellen glided from her stay,
And at the Monarch’s feet she lay:
No word her choking voice commands;
She show’d the ring, she clasp’d her hands.
O! not a moment could he brook,
The generous prince, that suppliant look!
Gently he raised her; and, the while,
Check’d with a glance the circle’s smile;
Graceful but grave, her brow he kiss’d,
And bade her terrors be dismiss’d:
‘Yes, fair, the wandering poor Fitz-James
The fealty of Scotland claims.
T o him thy woes, thy wishes bring;
He will redeem his signet ring.
(From: Scott, The Lady of the Lake, Canto VI)

Blank verse is a non-rhyming iambic pentameter, usually stichic. Under the influence of Shakespeare it became a widely used verse form for English dramatic verse, but it is also used, under the influence of Milton, for non-dramatic verse.

And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again;
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope
(From: Wordsworth, Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey)

Couplet is the name for two rhyming lines of verse following immediately after each other. The heroic couplet, popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries consists of two lines of rhyming iambic pentameter. An octosyllabic couplet is also sometimes called a short couplet. The regular metre and the rhyme pattern of the couplet, usually with end-stopped lines, provides comparatively small units (two lines in fact) in which to make a point. Especially eighteenth-century poets used the form to create satirical contrasts within the couplet. In the following example from Pope’s Imitations of Horace especially the lines “To prove, that Luxury could never hold; / And place, on good security, his Gold” present a blatant contradiction between words and action in a completely harmonious (regular metre, noticeable rhyme) poetic form. In consequence the reader notices the contradiction somewhat belatedly, almost as an afterthought. The effect is that of thinly disguised satire.

Time was, a sober Englishman wou’d knock
His servants up, and rise by five a clock,
Instruct his Family in ev’ry rule,
And send his Wife to Church, his Son to school.
To worship like his Fathers was his care;
To teach their frugal Virtues to his Heir;
To prove, that Luxury could never hold;
And place, on good Security, his Gold.
(From: Pope, Imitations of Horace, Ep. II.i)

A tercet, sometimes also called a triplet, is a stanza with three lines of the same rhyme (aaa or two rhyming lines embracing a line without rhyme (axa).

Released from the noise of the butcher and baker,
Who, my old friends be thanked, did seldom forsake her,
And from the soft duns of my landlord the Quaker;

From chiding the footmen, and watching the lasses,
From Nell that burned milk too, and Tom that broke glasses
(Sad mischiefs through which a good housekeeper passes!);

From some real care, but more fancied vexation,
From a life parti-coloured, half reason, half passion,
Here lies after all the best wench in the nation.
(From: Prior, Jinny the Just)

The terza rima is a variant of the tercet famously used by Dante in his Divine Comedy. The terza rima uses a chain rhyme, the second line of each stanza rhymes with the first and the third line of the next stanza (aba bcb cdc etc.)

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.

Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.

As if it did not know they’d changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged
(From: Wilbur, First Snow in Alsace)

The quatrain is one of the most common and popular stanza forms in English poetry. It is a stanza comprising four lines of verse with various rhyme patterns. When written in iambic pentameter and rhyming abab it is called heroic quatrain:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
(From: Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard)

Tennyson used a quatrain rhyming abba for his famous poem In Memoriam A.H.H. and the stanza form has since derived its name from this poem – the Memoriam stanza:

O, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

The ballad stanza is a variant of the quatrain. Most commonly, lines of iambic tetrameter alternate with iambic trimeter (also called chevy-chase stanza after one of the oldest poems written in this form). The rhyme scheme is usually abcb, sometimes also abab.

Down dropped the breeze, the sails dropped down,
‘Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
(From: Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

The rhyme royal is a seven-line stanza in iambic pentameter which rhymes ababbcc. It is called rhyme royal because King James I of Scotland used it, though he was not the first to do so; Chaucer employed the stanza in Troilus and Criseyde much earlier.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighbourhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line
Without expression, waiting for a sign.
(From: Auden, The Shield of Achilles)

The ottava rima derives from Italian models like the terza rima and the sonnet do; it is a stanza with eight lines rhyming abababcc. The most famous use of the stanza form in English poetry was made by Byron in Don Juan, who skillfully employs the stanza form for comic effect; in the following example the last line renders the slightly pompous lovesickness of the first seven lines quite ridiculous.

“And oh! if e’er I should forget, I swear –
But that’s impossible, and cannot be –
Sooner shall this blue ocean melt to air,
Sooner shall earth resolve itself to sea,
Than I resign thine image, Oh, my fair!
Or think of anything, excepting thee;
A mind diseased no remedy can physic” –
(Here the ship gave a lurch, and he grew seasick.)

The Spenserian stanza, famously used by Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene, has nine lines rhyming ababbcbcc, the first eight lines are iambic pentameter, the last line is an alexandrine, which breaks the slight monotony of the pentameters and is often employed to emphasise a point. Here is Spenser’s description of the Redcross Knight; the last line emphasises the knight’s valour (he feared nothing but everyone feared him):

But on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore,
The deare remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead as living ever him ador’d:
Upon his shield the like was also scor’d,
For soveraine hope, which in his helpe he had:
Right faithfull true he was in deede and word,
But of his cheere did seeme too solemne sad;
Yet nothing did he dread, but ever was ydrad.
(From: Spenser, The Faerie Queene)

The sonnet is a lyric poem of (usually) fourteen lines in iambic pentameter which became popular in England in the sixteenth century (see Types of Poetry). Later sonnet writers sometimes varied the number of lines between ten and sixteen lines, but still called the poem a sonnet (George Meredith for instance in his sonnet sequence Modern Love used sixteen lines, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote sonnets that had ten-and-a-half lines).

One distinguishes between two main rhyme patterns in the sonnet: The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet is divided into an octave or octet (eight lines) rhyming abbaabba and a sestet rhyming cdecde or some variation (for example cdccdc). Very often this type of sonnet develops two sides of a question or a problem and a solution, one in the octave and, after a turn often introduced by ‘but’, ‘yet’ or a similar conjunction that indicates a change of argument, another in the sestet. In the following sonnet the speaker laments his inability to serve God on account of his blindness in the octave, but in the sestet takes courage again from the thought that God will not expect more of him than he can do and that his best servitude is to bear his lot in patience. Milton varies the form slightly by placing the turn (“but”) in the last line of the octave.

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my day, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
I fondly ask; but patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
(Milton, On My Blindness)

The English or Shakespearean sonnet usually falls into three quatrains and one final couplet. The rhyme pattern is most commonly abab cdcd efef gg. In the English sonnet the turn often occurs in the concluding couplet, which operates rather like a punch line, as in the following example. The first twelve lines lament the all-powerful and destructive influence of time, but the couplet ventures to express some hope that writing poetry might in fact overcome this and preserve the poet’s love forever.

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless, this miracle have might
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
(Shakespeare, Sonnet 65)

An important variant of the English sonnet is the Spenserian sonnet which links the quatrains with rhymes: abab bcbc cdcd ee.

Unrighteous Lord of love, what law is this,
That me thou makest thus tormented be:
The whiles she lordeth in licentious blisse
Of her freewill, scorning both thee and me.
See how the Tyranesse doth joy to see
The huge massácres which her eyes do make:
And humbled harts brings captives unto thee,
That thou of them mayst mightie vengeance take.
But her proud hart doe thou a little shake
And that high look, with which she doth comptroll
All this worlds pride, bow to a baser make,
And al her faults in thy black booke enroll.
That I may laugh at her in equall sort,
As she doth laugh at me and makes my pain her sport.
(Spenser, Amoretti, Sonnet 10)

The limerick is used mainly for nonsense verse. It consists of five lines, two longer ones (trimeter, one trochaic foot, two anapaests), two shorter ones (anapaestic dimeter) and another trimeter (one trochee, two anapaests). Edward Lear, one of the most famous limerick- and nonsense verse writers, insisted that the first and the fifth line of the limerick should end with the same word, usually a place name.

There was an old person of Dutton
Whose head was as small as a button.
So, to make it look big,
He purchased a wig
And rapidly rushed about Dutton
(Lear, from: Book of Nonsense Verse)

The villanelle has a rather intricate verse and rhyme pattern. It originated in France and reproduces the circular patterns of a peasant dance. The villanelle has five tercets rhyming aba and a final quatrain rhyming abaa. The lines of the first tercet provide a kind of refrain, a recurring repetition of one or more lines. Thus the first line of the first tercet is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth tercet, the third line of the first tercet is repeated as the last line of the third and the fifth tercet. (One really needs to look at the example to work this out.) Both lines (first and third line of first tercet) form the last two lines of the concluding quatrain. A famous example is Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night”, where the highly organised and artificial but also playful form of the villanelle at first seems to contrast starkly with the poem’s topic: the sick and dying father. But the form, which has to bend language into this disciplined playfulness, effectively helps to express the speaker’s overwhelming desire to instil a spirit of resistance and a new passion for living in his father. [die wiederholten Zeilen line 1, line 2, line 3, jeweils farbig machen.]

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
a (line 1)
b (line 2)
a (line 3)
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
a (line 1)
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
a (line 3)
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
a (line 1)
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
a (line 3)
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
a (line 1)
a (line 3)

Composite and Irregular Forms

Quite frequently poets combine various forms or employ no regular formal rhyme pattern, though rhyme and metre are nonetheless used. John Milton’s poem Lycidas for instance is written in an irregular form: The iambic pentameter is at irregular intervals interspersed with a trimeter. John Donne frequently combines various forms into a regular composite form. For instance The Canonization, a poem with five stanzas of nine lines each varies iambic pentameter with iambic tetrameter and a concluding line in iambic trimeter. The speaker is obviously in a temper because people interfere with his love life. The rapid change between pentameter and tetrameter expresses his irritation and the irregular flow of speech is conveyed as he switches between the slightly slower pentamenter and the slightly quicker tetrameter. The final trimeter brings the stanza to an emphatic (because notably shorter) conclusion.

For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,
Or chide my palsy, or my gout,
My five grey hairs, or ruined fortune, flout,
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve,
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his Honor or His Grace,
Or the King’s real, or his stampèd face
Contémplate; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.


   • stichic
   • blank verse
   • couplet
   • tercet
   • terza rima
   • quatrain
   • ballad stanza /       chevy chase       stanza
   • rhyme royal
   • ottava rima
   • Spenserian       stanza
   • sonnet
   • Italian /       Petrarchan       sonnet
   • Spenserian       sonnet
   • English sonnet      Shakespearean       sonnet
   • limerick
   • villanelle