By Dr Oliver Tearle
Learning the different verse forms that poets have used for centuries might seem like a daunting task, but in this article we’ve picked ten of the most popular and enduring verse forms, and offer a short introduction to each of them. So, if you’ve always wanted to know more about different verse forms, and would like to be able to tell a sonnet from a ballad, look no further.
For anyone wanting to know more about the different verse forms, we highly recommend Stephen Fry’s accessible and fun introduction, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within.
Let’s start with one of the most widely used and enduring verse forms in all of literature. Originating in Italy in the thirteenth century (it was actually a little-known Sicilian poet named Giacomo da Lentini, rather than the later and more famous Petrarch, who invented this form), the sonnet (almost) always takes 14 lines and comes in a variety of forms, though the two most famous are the English or Shakespearean sonnet (three quatrains of alternate rhymes, i.e. abab cdcd efef, followed by a concluding rhyming couplet, gg) and the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet (an octave rhymed abbaabba and a sestet that can be rhymed a number of ways, though often cdcdcd).
The beauty of the sonnet form is that it’s just long enough to explore/argue an issue or work through a mental or emotional conflict, but will never outstay its welcome. Some poets have innovated with the sonnet form in surprising way: see our longer introduction to the sonnet here. Here is a fine example of the sonnet form by its earliest English practitioner, Sir Thomas Wyatt:
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
We all know about haiku: the Japanese verse form comprising three lines and a total of 17 syllables, i.e. 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second line, and 5 in the third? This actually only tells part of the story (there is a difference between our understanding of ‘syllables’ based on the original Japanese formula), and haiku, strictly, should be about nature – we explore the form in more detail here.
Strictly speaking, ballad metre is verse in quatrains comprising lines of alternating tetrameter (four feet) and tetrameter (three feet), rhymed abcb (rather than abab, for instance). A typical example is the opening stanza from the anonymous ballad ‘Sir Patrick Spens’:
The King sits in Dunferline toun,
Drinkin the blude-reid wine
‘O whaur will A get a skeely skipper
Tae sail this new ship o mine?’
Ballads usually tell a story, so they’re a form of narrative poem, but written in the abcb quatrains illustrated above. However, ballads were originally composed to be sung and danced to, with musical accompaniment: the word ‘ballad’ comes from the Latin ballare, meaning ‘to dance’.
This very restrictive verse form presents a challenge to the poet, since it hinges on the repeated use of two refrains. As its name suggests, the villanelle is a French verse form, yet this French form took its name from an Italian one: the word derives from villanella, a form of Italian part-song which originated in Naples in the sixteenth century.
Yet English poetry, rather than French or Italian, has become the naturalised home of the villanelle. This intriguing verse form comprises 19 lines made up of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a concluding quatrain.
As the Oxford English Dictionary summarises it, ‘The first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated alternately in the succeeding stanzas as a refrain, and form a final couplet in the quatrain.’
An example of how the villanelle works in practice can be seen in an early example in English, Oscar Wilde’s ‘Theocritus: A Villanelle’ from 1890:
O singer of Persephone!
In the dim meadows desolate
Dost thou remember Sicily?
Still through the ivy flits the bee
Where Amaryllis lies in state;
O Singer of Persephone!
Simaetha calls on Hecate
And hears the wild dogs at the gate;
Dost thou remember Sicily?
And so on. Although it remains a niche form, some fantastic poems have been written using the villanelle form in the twentieth century, including W. H. Auden’s ‘If I Could Tell You’, William Empson’s ‘Missing Dates’, and Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’. We have a fuller history of the villanelle here.
5. Ottava Rima.
The term ottava rima is Italian, as is this verse form, comprising eight-line stanzas rhymed abababcc. Like the heroic couplet below, it was first used to write about grand, heroic things; but later, it was used, especially in English, for mock-heroic poems, most famously Byron’s long narrative poem Don Juan, where the rhymes were also often comically polysyllabic (as with ‘satire, he’ and ‘flattery/battery’ here):
I am no flatterer – you’ve supped full of flattery:
They say you like it too – ’tis no great wonder:
He whose whole life has been assault and battery,
At last may get a little tired of thunder;
And swallowing eulogy much more than satire, he
May like being praised for every lucky blunder;
Called ‘Saviour of the Nations’ – not yet saved,
And Europe’s Liberator – still enslaved.
The sestina is great fun to write, though, as Stephen Fry acknowledges in The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, hard to explain. But the gist is that you have six-line stanzas – six of them in all – followed by a concluding three-line stanza. The ‘rhymes’ at the ends of the lines are not rhymes at all; instead, you have six words – Fry calls them ‘hero’ words – which you repeat at the ends of lines, once each for each stanza, but at different points in the stanza.
We’ve gathered together some examples of the sestina form here which help to explain how the form works. Here is the opening stanza from one of the most famous sestinas in English, by Sir Philip Sidney:
Ye goatherd gods, that love the grassy mountains,
Ye nymphs which haunt the springs in pleasant valleys,
Ye satyrs joyed with free and quiet forests,
Vouchsafe your silent ears to plaining music,
Which to my woes gives still an early morning,
And draws the dolor on till weary evening …
7. Rhyme Royal.
Used by Geoffrey Chaucer for his long narrative poem Troilus and Criseyde, rhyme royal is very similar to ottava rima, except it’s seven lines long rather than eight, and rhymed ababbcc. The verse form was later used by Tudor poets, such as Sir Thomas Wyatt, whose ‘They Flee from Me’ is a superlative example of what the form can do:
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
8. Heroic Couplet.
The ‘heroic couplet’ is the name given to rhyming couplets written in iambic pentameter. They’re called ‘heroic’ because they were used in translations of epic poetry into English – poems about heroes from classical mythology.
Heroic couplets thus suggest grandeur and ‘weightiness’, although the flipside of this is that they have sometimes been used to create the opposite effect: for instance, Alexander Pope, in his mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock, uses heroic couplets to summon the lofty world of gods and goddesses … in a poem about an upper-class woman having a lock of her hair cut off:
This Nymph, to the destruction of mankind,
Nourish’d two Locks, which graceful hung behind
In equal curls, and well conspir’d to deck
With shining ringlets the smooth iv’ry neck.
Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains,
And mighty hearts are held in slender chains.
Heroic couplets were also popular in the eighteenth century – before the advent of Romanticism brought in a preference for blank verse (see below) – since they suggested order and neatness, which neoclassical or ‘Augustan’ poets like Pope, Samuel Johnson, and others wanted to bring to poetry. Johnson in particular wrote verse satires and didactic poems using heroic couplets.
9. Blank Verse.
Blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter, and is not to be confused with free verse (which is unrhymed but doesn’t have a regular metre). Of all the verse forms listed here, with the exception of free verse below, blank verse is the one that comes the closest to the natural rhythms of English speech, which is what helped to make it so useful to writers of verse dramas, such as Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, John Webster, and, later, T. S. Eliot.
Here’s a famous example from Shakespeare:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come …
You’ll notice that blank verse has a rhythm (iambic pentameter goes ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM), but no rhyme. We explore blank verse in more depth here.
10. Free Verse.
As mentioned above, free verse is different from blank verse: it’s unrhymed, but also has no regular metre – and doesn’t even need regular line lengths. This gives the poet far greater freedom, as this short 1908 poem from T. E. Hulme shows:
A touch of cold in the Autumn night –
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
Note the lines can be very short (like that second one) or much longer (the third), there is no rhyme at the ends of the lines, and no set rhythm. However, much free verse does still have a loose rhythm. It just isn’t rigidly enforced throughout the poem. It’s more like a rough beat for the poet to keep coming back to. We’ve written a more in-depth introduction to free verse.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Very helpful. You omitted to mention that most English sonnets are written in pentameters, but I’m glad you haven’t repeated the heresy that all sonnets have to have lines of only ten syllables. The rule for sonnet lines, as for all pentameters, is simply that there have to be five STRESSED syllables. As a simple examination of Shakespeare’s and Milton’s sonnets shows. Ten syllables may be a useful discipline but it is NOT compulsory
The ode less travvelled is fantastic. Another very good book is Meter and meaning, by T. Carper and D Attridge. It is more specifically on meter rather than form, but I recommend it: it is not difficult and doesn’t get lost in complicated terminology.
Good shout on the Carper and Attridge. There’s an art to talking about metre without getting frustratingly over-technical, and that book gets it just right.
I teach English lang. and lit in Italy, and most of my colleagues either only cover Iambic pentameter (well, that’s a lot of course) or worry about teaching terminology the way the Latin lit teacher do it, without really working on how meter works. Meter and meaning helped me find a way to do that, and confirmed in my idea that once you know binary meters in English you’ve got what you need.