Literature

10 of the Best Examples of Stanzas in Poems

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

The word stanza is derived from Italian: it literally means ‘room’, or ‘place for stopping or standing’. This Italian word was co-opted into English, and is now used to describe the arrangement of verse lines into a particular pattern, depending on how many lines there are and how they are organised.

Below, we present ten examples of different stanza forms, from some of the most celebrated poets who have ever lived. Each of these stanzas is distinct from the others in some way, so we’ll identify how it is unique.

We’ve tried to focus on the commonest, and most interesting and useful, stanza types here, so this isn’t a complete list: there are others, such as five-line stanzas of ‘quintains’, which are worth a mention, but whilst they are common in poetry, such stanza forms are less ubiquitous or established than the ones we have identified below.

William Blake, ‘The Tyger’.

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

Let’s begin by looking at some of the most basic and common kinds of quatrain, and, before all others, let’s consider the quatrain in rhyming couplets. This is a simple form where the first and second lines rhyme, and then the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other, in an aabb pattern.

Here, Blake uses this form to suggest the wide-eyed innocence of the speaker, who is contemplating the wild and fearsome creature, the tiger. What kind of God made such an animal?

A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad XII.

When I watch the living meet,
And the moving pageant file
Warm and breathing through the street
Where I lodge a little while …

In addition to the quatrain in rhyming couplets, there’s also the quatrain with alternate rhyme, as seen in this poem from A. E. Housman’s 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad.

Housman was fond of the simple popular poetic forms such as the ballad, and the songs in Shakespeare’s plays. Here, the lad contemplates his own mortality, turning from the ‘living’ who surround him in his Shropshire village and considering the dead instead.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

One of the rarer forms a quatrain can take is the quatrain with enclosed rhyme, as here, in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great elegy, In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850), written in the wake of the sudden death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam.

The enclosed or ‘envelope’ rhyme (as it’s also known), whereby the middle rhymes are enclosed within, or enveloped by, the outer rhymes, is useful for conveying a sense of stasis or immobility: a cyclical feeling of being stuck (such as in the process of grief?).

Anonymous, ‘Barbara Allen’.

‘O mother, mother, make my bed,
O make it saft and narrow:
My love has died for me today,
I’ll die for him tomorrow.’

A more specific form the quatrain can take is what’s known as the ballad stanza. This comprises four lines rhymed abcb, so is similar to alternate rhyme, but the odd lines don’t rhyme in the ballad stanza. The metre is usually tetrameter (four feet) on the odd lines and trimeter (three feet) on the even lines.

In this anonymous ballad, ‘bonny’ Barbara Allen is summoned to the deathbed of a rich young nobleman, who seeks a declaration of love from her. But he slighted her in front of his friends, so she refuses this dying wish …

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Omar Khyyám, Rubáiyát.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

This stanza form is another variation on the quatrain, but this time rhymed aaba, as in the above quatrain.

The word Rubáiyát simply means ‘quatrains’ in Persian, the language used by the all-round scholar and poet Omar Khyyám (1048-1131), a man who was a ‘Renaissance man’ centuries before the European Renaissance.

Alice Oswald, ‘A Short Story of Falling’.

One of the simplest of all stanza forms is the rhyming couplet. Sometimes, couplets are arranged on the page in separate two-line stanzas (other poets, such as the eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope, wrote in verse paragraphs, although rhymed their poetry in couplets).

This poem by the British poet Alice Oswald (born 1966) is one of the former kind, so the rhyming couplets form individual stanzas, locking together in their aa rhymes and yet flowing into the next stanza: appropriately enough, given the focus of this poem is on falling things, such as the rain of a summer shower or water flowing down.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘The Eagle’.

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

This short poem by Tennyson, quoted above in its entirety, provides us with an example of a three-line rhyming stanza: the triplet.

A tercet is any three-line stanza, regardless of how (or if) it rhymes. But a triplet is specifically a rhymed tercet, as above, where ‘hands’, ‘lands’, and ‘stands’ all rhyme with each other in the first stanza, and ‘crawls’, ‘walls’, and ‘falls’ rhyme in the second.

Percy Shelley, ‘Ode to the West Wind’.

Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aëry surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head …

Let’s turn to a more specific, and intricate, three-line stanza form: terza rima. This form, derived from Italian, involves an opening stanza rhyme aba, followed by a second rhymed bcb, and then another rhymed cdc, and so on, until we end with a stanza containing the initial a rhyme.

You can see this in Shelley’s poem above, as ‘commotion’ and ‘Ocean’ rhyme, and the ‘shed’ which ends the second line of the opening stanza rhymes with ‘spread’ and ‘head’ in the next one.

W. B. Yeats, ‘Among School Children’.

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way—the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

Another Italian form is ottava rima, which contains eight lines, rhymed abababcc. This form has been used in English for many centuries: Lord Byron earned a fortune for his long mock-heroic poem Don Juan in the early nineteenth century, while the Irish poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) put the form to more meditative use in his late poem ‘Among School Children’.

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene.

A gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Ycladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruel markes of many’a bloudy fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he never wield:
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full jolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.
Let’s conclude with a rare kind of stanza: the Spenserian stanza.

This form was invented by the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-99) for his great epic poem The Faerie Queene, a vast fantastical poem based on English legend, which was unfinished at the time of Spenser’s death.

The stanza form contains nine lines of iambic pentameter, ending with a longer hexameter line. John Keats, a great devotee of Spenser, used this form for his ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, while another Romantic poet, Percy Shelley, shortened the lines by one foot and used the stanza form for his ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’.

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