A stanza is a regular grouping of the verse-lines in a poem, set off by a space in the printed text. There may be of any number of lines, but more than twelve is uncommon; four is the commonest.
Of the great variety of English stanza forms, many have no specific names and the stanza pattern must be described by specifying the number of lines, the type and number of feet in each line, and the pattern of the rhyme. Some stanzas have been used so frequently that they have been given the convenience of a name.
A point to remember: the term stanza is applied to regular groupings of lines of verse. We use the term verse paragraph when referring to a group of lines (such as in blank verse) in longer poems which does not fall into a neat stanzaic pattern.
A knowledge of the stanzaic forms is essential if you are to write with authority about the form of a poem.
You will need to use the terminology on this page if you are to attain Assessment Objectives AO1— Communicate clearly the knowledge, understanding and insight appropriate to literary study, using appropriate terminology and accurate and coherent written expression —and AO3— Show detailed understanding of the ways in which writers’ choices of form, structure and language shape meanings
couplet: a pair of rhymed lines.
tercet: a stanza of three lines, usually with a single rhyme.
quatrain: a stanza of four lines, rhymed or unrhymed. The commonest of all stanzaic forms in European poetry. Most rhyming quatrains fall into the following rhyme schemes: abab, xbyb, aabb, abba or aaxa
ballad stanza: a quatrain in alternately four- and three-stress iambic lines, with the rhyme scheme abcb or, less frequently, abab. When the same stanza occurs in hymns, it is called common measure or English hymnal.
blank verse: the most widely used of English verse forms, and the one closest to the rhythms of everyday speech. Usually iambic pentameter but not exclusively so.
free verse or vers libre: has no regular metre, line length or rhyme, and often depends on natural speech rhythms.
Not to be confused with blank verse, which has a definite structure.
heroic couplet: Rhymed decasyllables, nearly always in iambic pentameters rhymed in pairs: one of the commonest metrical forms in English poetry but of uncertain origin. Chaucer was the first poet to make extensive and successful use of this verse form. The 15th century poets used the couplet occasionally, but it did not become firmly established until the 16th and 17th centuries.
The stanzaic form that you are most likely to encounter is the Sonnet.
A sonnet is a lyric poem of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter. The two main forms are:
- the Petrarchan sonnet, and
- the English sonnet.
Petrarchan sonnet: This form (also called the Italian sonnet) is the most common form of sonnet. It consists of
- an octave (eight lines) rhyming abbaabba and
- a sestet (six lines) rhyming cdecde or cdcdcd,
or in any combination except a rhyming couplet.
The octave develops an idea; the sestet is a comment on, a completion of, or a volta ('turn') on, that idea.
English sonnet (also known as the Shakespearean sonnet because Shakespeare was its most prolific practitioner) consists of
- three quatrains (four lines each), rhyming abab cdcd efef or abab cddc effe, each quatrain with a different idea building upon the one before it, and
- a couplet (two lines), rhyming gg, with the conclusion.
There may be subtle variations on the iambic pattern.
One variant of the English sonnet is the Spenserian sonnet, developed by and named after Edmund Spenser. In this form, each quatrain is linked to the next by a continuous rhyme: abab bcbc cdcd ee
© PA and CJ Thorns, page last edited March 01, 2005