By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are the best examples of the cinquain in English and American poetry? There is actually more than one way to define what a cinquain actually is, but the broadest definition is that a cinquain is any five-line poem. That’s it: a poem composed of five lines.
But such a broad definition would mean that a limerick – that staple of comic and scurrilous verse – is technically a cinquain, and whilst that may be true in a general sense, we’ve decided to omit limericks from our list of best cinquains in English. For this reason the term ‘quintain’ is better employed for any five-line verse form, with ‘cinquain’ carrying a more specific definition.
So below, we’ll focus here on the cinquain as a specific verse form, invented by the American poet Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914) in the early twentieth century. Although the word ‘cinquain’ had existed before her miniature verse innovation, Crapsey co-opted it to describe the five-line unrhymed form which she used in her finest poetry. She was influenced by the Japanese tanka and haiku forms when creating the cinquain form.
The first line must contain one beat, the second two beats, the third three, the fourth four – with the fifth and final line reverting to a single beat. The cinquain thus offers a steady progression, followed by a sudden retreat.
Adelaide Crapsey, ‘November Night’.
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
This example of Crapsey’s cinquains resembles the Japanese haiku form in that its central image is formed of two elements: the falling leaves and the steps of the ghosts.
Indeed, in many of her cinquains, something small and everyday (such as leaves) is juxtaposed with something large and timeless (here, the dead). In this respect, the dying leaves are a memento mori; the simile linking them to ghostly footsteps only intensifies this.
Adelaide Crapsey, ‘Blue Hyacinths’.
Curled petals what ghosts
Of blue headlands and seas,
What perfumed immortal breath sighing
This poem recalls the origins of the name of hyacinths in the Greek youth Hyacinth, who was beloved of Apollo. The blue flowers transport the speaker back to ancient Greece, summoning that age of heroes and legend and forming a link between then and now, past and present.
Adelaide Crapsey, ‘Languor After Pain’.
And like cool balm,
An opiate weariness
Settles on eye-lids, on relaxed
The expanding and then shrinking away of the cinquain over its five lines perfectly mirrors the ebbing of pain and the spreading weariness the speaker feels, possibly under the influence of laudanum (that ‘opiate weariness’: is it like opiate-induced torpor or literally induced by opiates?).
Adelaide Crapsey, ‘Niagara Seen on a Night in November’.
Above the bulk
Of crashing water hangs
Autumnal, evanescent, wan,
Several of Crapsey’s cinquains are about November nights, and this one focuses on Niagara Falls, in Crapsey’s home state of New York. The moon looks frail above the powerful cataract of the Falls; here’s another poem that reveals the influence of the Japanese haiku on Crapsey’s development of the cinquain.
Adelaide Crapsey, ‘Shadow’.
On red rose,
A golden butterfly …
And on my heart a butterfly
Not all of Crapsey’s poems are about vast and Sublime features of nature like a waterfall or the moon. Here, a red rose and a golden butterfly provide the entire universe of this miniature poem, with the butterfly’s transient life and delicate wings reminding the speaker of her own fluttering heart.
Adelaide Crapsey, ‘“He’s Killed the may and he’s laid her by / To bear the red rose company”’.
White rose, but thy
Ensanguined sister is
The dear companion of my heart’s
With its title and epigraph taken from the traditional ballad ‘Babylon’ or ‘The Bonnie Banks of Fordie’, this cinquain shows Crapsey’s attempt to adapt an old song to her new form.
The ‘Babylon’ ballad from which Crapsey takes her title tells of an outlaw who finds three sisters in the woods. He proposes to each of them in turn, threatening them with death if they refuse. The first two sisters do refuse him and are killed. The third, however, threatens the outlaw back; she claims her brother will come after him if he harms her.
After enquiring further, the man discovers that he is the brother of the women. Upon learning this, he takes his own life – thus fulfilling the sister’s prophecy that he would die at the hands of her brother. In five short lines, the narrow span of her cinquain, Crapsey seeks to distil this tale.
Adelaide Crapsey, ‘Moon-shadows’.
On windless nights
The moon-cast shadows are,
So still will be my heart when I
Once again, in this cinquain we find Crapsey’s speaker finding a parallel within nature for her own feelings. Crapsey died young and lived her last few years in illness, so it’s understandable that so many of her cinquains are about mortality.
Adelaide Crapsey, ‘Refuge in Darkness’.
Dim veil and blue
I will cover my eyes,
I will bind close my eyes that are
Many of Crapsey’s cinquains are about the night, and here she sees the night as providing a refuge from her worries and cares.
Adelaide Crapsey, ‘Trapped’.
If day on day
Follows, and weary year
On year … and ever days and years …
This cinquain is unusual among Crapsey’s poems in that it is entirely abstract: rather than finding some concrete, visual depiction of the feeling or mood the poem seeks to express, it remains in the world of abstractions. Yet there is something pleasing, just as the poem falls back on its one-stress final line, in the same word ending the poem as began it …
Adelaide Crapsey, ‘Amaze’.
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
We’ll conclude this pick of the best cinquains with one of Crapsey’s finest and best-known. It is also one which reflects her own worsening health when she was composing these poems. She died from tuberculosis, aged 36, in 1914. It’s tempting to read ‘Amaze’ in light of this: was Crapsey acutely aware of her mortality when she wrote the poem a year or so before she died?
Perhaps. But it is not self-pitying: the simple, flat repetition of ‘hands’ at the ends of the second and fourth lines stands in for the usual patterning of a rhyme, but denies us the satisfying progress offered by conventional rhyme, as ‘hands’ is paired with itself, as if underscoring the speaker’s shock (or ‘amaze’) at noticing the change that has come upon her body. The simple, barely registered sliding of ‘I know’ into ‘I think’ reinforces this state of puzzled doubt.