By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Quatrains are found in some of the best-known poems in the English language (and in other languages, too). From border ballads to contemporary poems, the quatrain – a four-line unit or stanza – has proved useful to many poets over the centuries.
Quatrains can be unrhymed, but when they do rhyme, they can carry many different patterns: they can be in rhyming couplets (aabb), alternate rhyme (abab), enclosed or envelope rhyme (abba), or the rhyme used in many ballads (abcb). Quatrain poems often tell a story, but numerous lyric poets have drawn on the power of the four-line stanza to express their personal thoughts and feelings, too.
Let’s take a look at some of the best examples of quatrain poems in the English language, spanning almost half a millennium.
1. Anonymous, ‘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?’
So begins one of the best-known ballads to come from Scotland: the so-called ‘border ballads’. In ballads, the rhyme scheme is usually abcb, so the even lines of each quatrain rhyme (e.g., ‘wine’ and ‘mine’), but the odd lines don’t (so ‘toun’ and ‘skipper’).
Ballads were originally written to be sung to accompanying music, and the to-and-fro of the rhyme, and the alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter, lend the lines a brisk, lively rhythm and pattern. This poem tells of a sea captain who undertakes a perilous voyage on the command of his king.
2. Mary Wroth, ‘Song’.
Love a child is ever crying,
Please him, and he straight is flying,
Give him, he the more is craving,
Never satisfied with having …
Some quatrain poems are rhymed in couplets: aabb. And that’s what we have in this short song from the first long sonnet sequence written by a woman in the early seventeenth century.
Pamphilia to Amphilanthus sees the female Pamphilia (‘all-loving’) address her unfaithful male lover Amphilanthus (‘lover-of-two’) in an effort to make him a more constant lover. This song is one of a number of songs which punctuate the cycle of sonnets.
The rhyming couplets, combined with the falling rhythm of the weak line endings, create a simple, faintly plangent tone to this poem which likens the male lover to a baby (via Cupid, god of love): selfish, unable to commit, and constantly craving more.
3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H.
Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand …
When Tennyson’s university friend Arthur Henry Hallam died suddenly in 1833, Tennyson was distraught. He spent the next sixteen years penning one of the most ambitious elegies in the English language, In Memoriam A. H. H., which was eventually published in 1850.
Throughout this long poem, Tennyson uses the abba rhyme scheme for his quatrains: what is known as enclosed rhyme, or envelope rhyme, because the a rhymes ‘envelop’ or ‘enclose’ the b rhymes. This creates a feeling of being trapped (in grief, perhaps?) as we always end up back where we started.
4. Emily Dickinson, ‘They Shut Me Up in Prose’.
They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me ‘still’ …
Along with her trademark use of dashes, Emily Dickinson (1830-86) is also well-known for her adoption of the quatrain form in the bulk of her poetry (and she wrote a great deal of poetry, almost all of which remained unpublished at the time of her death).
She was also a pioneer of pararhyme, and here she offers us a quatrain poem where the alternate ‘rhymes’ don’t quite fit: ‘Prose’ and ‘Closet’, for instance, and ‘Girl’ and ‘still’, clearly belong together, but their union is uneasy, just as the speaker’s protestation at being ‘shut up’ in prose (as in ‘imprisoned’ or ‘silenced’?) renders her voice at once more important and more difficult to make heard.
5. Lewis Carroll, ‘Jabberwocky’.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe …
A classic piece of Victorian nonsense, ‘Jabberwocky’ is included in the second ‘Alice’ book, Through the Looking-Glass (1871) by Lewis Carroll. This poem is remarkable for its invention of numerous new words, many of which Humpty Dumpty glosses when Alice meets him in the book.
Carroll’s use of the quatrain form summons the ballad, given the narrative in the poem and the fact that the final stanza repeats the first. But Carroll doesn’t stick to the ballad metre precisely, and gives us an abab rhyme scheme.
6. A. E. Housman, ‘Is My Team Ploughing’.
‘Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?’
So begins one of many quatrain poems we can find in the bestselling collection by the classical scholar and poet Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), his 1896 volume A Shropshire Lad.
Housman was drawn to the old ballads, and so he favoured the simplicity of the quatrain form, as well as its utility for telling a story through a poem. Here, we discover that the lad – who is conversing with a dead friend of his – is busy warming the bed of his departed friend’s lover …
7. Claude McKay, ‘December, 1919’.
Last night I heard your voice, mother,
The words you sang to me
When I, a little barefoot boy,
Knelt down against your knee …
Some poets who were part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s broke away from fixed forms in favour of free verse; Langston Hughes is the leading example of this.
But others, such as the Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay (1889-1948), continued to write in established forms such as the sonnet – and, here, the quatrain, in a touching poem about a mother who has died.
8. Dudley Randall, ‘Ballad of Birmingham’.
The African-American poet and editor Dudley Randall turns to the traditional ballad form in his moving ‘Ballad of Birmingham’, about a tragic event during the Civil Rights movement when a Black church was bombed by white supremacists in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.
The poem has many features of the traditional ballad (such as ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, above): direct dialogue, a story (and it is usually a tragic story), and powerful use of the quatrain form to structure the narrative. But Randall was writing about a real-life event that had recently occurred. He circulated the poem as a broadside in the 1960s.
9. Mary Oliver, ‘The Black Snake’.
‘The Black Snake’ is a 1979 poem by the American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), who, at the time of her death, was reckoned to be the bestselling poet in the United States. Oliver’s poetry is in the Romantic tradition and often takes its cue from observations of the natural world; ‘The Black Snake’ is a classic example of this.
This poem is about the way human civilisation can impinge – with fatal results – upon the natural world which has remained unchanged for centuries. The poem comprises six quatrains which tell of a snake that has been killed by a motorist.
But the poem becomes a meditation on all life, and how we manage to continue living, even though we live with the constant knowledge that we will one day die. Oliver uses unrhymed quatrains (but with some pararhyme) to give her poem a looser, meditative feel.
10. Gillian Clarke, ‘Pheidippedes’ Daughter’.
Written for her own daughter Catrin, this touching poem from Clarke’s 2012 collection Ice (Carcanet Press) misspells the name of the ancient runner Pheidippides (perhaps to bring out a pun on the ‘ped’, i.e. foot).
The poem weaves in Welsh myth (Clarke is among the finest Welsh poets of the last half-century) and the classical story of the man who supposedly ran from the Battle of Marathon to tell the people of Athens that they had won the battle.
Clarke uses pararhyme delicately in this quatrain poem, before the half-rhymes harden into fuller rhymes in the poem’s closing stanza.