Expansive Poetry & Music Online: Prosody
Copyright (c) 2000 by Expansive Poetry & Music Online and Somers Rocks Press

Part IV (Edited April 2002)


Stanza is most often associated with rhyme, though it need not be.  However, division of blank or other unrhymed verse for any but structural demands (different speaker, new scene, new thought) is problematic.   Typesetting tricks with blank verse to create visual emphasis may be valid, but if they're not done with extreme care they begin to look precious, and even nonsensical.  Many poets, however, use a line break to indicate a verse paragraph.  But, this is a visual cue; when a poem is heard, other means have to be used.

Emphasis in unrhymed verse, generally a continuous form, is better created with such devices as caesura (a stop in the middle of the line, as a period, a comma, etc.), enjambment, or running one line into the next without stopping, foot substitution, or a striking change of the type of metrical foot in use, as from a regular series of iambs to a trochee.  Part of Hamlet's soliloquy in Act III is a fine sample.  Here, as throughout, no effort will be made to show the accents.  Find them yourself; say the poem aloud.   Print the poem segment and mark the big stresses somehow.   There are many rows among critics about strong and weak stresses in English.  Go for the most noticeable ones.  In English prosody, weak stress is about the same as no stress as far as prosody goes.  Keep saying a piece aloud until it sounds like unaffected speech.  If there are extremely unusual variations in a modern pronunciation from a perceived metrical or rhyme pattern, it is possible that a particular rhyme or accent has shifted in the intervening years (or centuries):

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 heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consumation
Devoutly to be wished.  To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to dream.  Ay, there's the rub!
                         Hamlet, Act III, scene i, Shakespeare

Blank verse, used from the time of Shakespeare to the present, will be looked at elsewhere.

Typical stanzas in English begin with the most common, couplets, aa, bb, cc, etc.  Couplets may be any line length, but tend to work best in an accented language restricted to five beats or less, most commonly a range between three and five.  In English, 5-beat iambic pentameter couplets are called Heroic.   In French, 12-syllable length couplets are called Heroic.   Alexander Pope used heroic couplets in Essay on Man.

      Of systems possible, if 'tis confest
      That wisdom infinite must form the best,
      Where all must full or not coherent be,
      And all that rises, rise in due degree;
      Then, in the scale of reas'ning life, 'tis plain,
      There must be, somewhere, such a rank as man:
      And all the question (wrangle e'er so long)
      Is only this, if God has plac'd him wrong?
      Respecting man whatever wrong we call,
      May, must be right, as relative to all....

                        from Essay on Man, Alexander Pope (1734)

Pope's use of couplets generates a tone of carefully accented, high seriousness.   Say them aloud, making an effort to let the poem sound as ordinary speech, but respecting the rhymes.  If you look in the archives at the excerpts from Richard Moore's The Mouse Whole, you will find a noticeably different effect.  Moore's trimeter couplets (with their heavy dose of anapests), have a bouncy rhythm that greatly enhances the comic and sometimes surreal impact of his rhymes.

      I was a sensitive soul.
     My life in that dark hole
     offended my delicate taste.
     With a Civilization's waste
     I remained unsatisfied;
     and "Could there be an outside?"
     I wondered, and watched those massed
     and sluggish waters creep past
     and gazed in the dismal distance
     and dreamed of another existence.

                from The Mouse Whole, Richard Moore (1997)

As you say this aloud, let your reading fall into the spirit of the piece; the meter and rhymes will help.  When you get it right, it will make sense to someone else.

A common, but less successful, variation on couplets in English is the Alexandrine, which has six strong beats in an accentual/syllabic line.  Six beats or longer in English tends to fall apart into line segments of  three or four beats each, which may be useful in some kinds of work, particularly in songs, or where the writer wishes to de-emphasize the couplets in some other way than enjambment or breaks in the middle of the line.  The trouble is that long lines are harder to control;  they break whether you want them to or not.  Pope used these, as did a few others, but they are rarely seen anymore.  More common, as throughout Auden, is to break 6-beat lines into pairs of 3-beat lines.  In an unaccented language, though, such a line is not a problem.  6-beat lines are very common in Italian, French and Spanish.

An even rarer variation is the fourteener, a line of seven strong beats, examples of which are seen even in shipping reports in Hakluyt's Chronicles. These always break into segments, and their evolution into ballad measure is not surprising (or into the lyrics of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas).  The four beats, three beats pattern of ballad quatrains is probably derived from fourteeners.  The poet Robert Service used something akin to this, usually in a triple meter:

When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and
      the glare,
  There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded
      for bear.
  He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the
      strength of a louse,
  Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks
      for the house.
  There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched
      ourselves for a clue;
  But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan
                                from The Shooting of Dan McGrew, Robert Service (1907)

Such long lines break into two or three segments.  Hear it as you read it aloud.  Anapestal feet lend themselves to parody, nevermind to poetry that can sound very silly.  But, with a guitar and some sort of melody, they can be very effective.  Try it. Balladeers used them for many generations.

These two were combined in Elizabethan times, the fourteener first, the Alexandrine second, in Poulter's Measure, a songwriting measure.  Not surprisingly, given the number of strong beats, both the Alexandrine and the fourteener tend to break apart into two line segments, much like Chaucer's poetic line did.  The advantages to this in songwriting are obvious, opening possibilites for the composer unavailable in a tighter line.

Stanzas with combinations of three include terza rima (Dante's scheme in The Divine Comedy), as aba, bcb, cdc, ded, efe and so forth.  The "inside out" movement provides powerful narrative impetus.  Each section of terza rima is usually closed with a couplet.  See Michael Palma's new translation of Dante's Inferno; it is possible to do this in English, but not with perfect rhymes.   Though, as noted previously, English is not so rhyme-poor as the cliche would have it, terza rima in English tasks the poet to use every trick in the book to get it going, including near and off rhyme, as well as assonance and consonance.  If you know Italian, Palma's translation, like Bernard Mandelbaum's, has the original text on the lefthand pages to show you how it worked for Dante.

Quatrains are very common in English poetry, with rhyme forms abab bcbc etc.   Less common, but frequently a part of a larger stanza, is the brace rhyme quatrain, abbc, cddc.  Another  is abbc abbc cdde cdde, another forward moving stanza akin to terza rima.  These may be for any line length, but tend to break up into distinct line segments if there are more than five beats to the line. As noted below, quatrains may have line lengths that vary in a regular fashion.  The variations possible are great in number.

          One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
          So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
          Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom,
          But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

          I should not be withheld but that some day
          Into their vastness I should steal away,
          Fearless of ever finding open land,
          Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

                        from A Boy's Will, Robert Frost (1913)

Frost uses aabb quatrains in this poem, in generally iambic pentamter lines.  Frost's "loose iambic," a line with far more substitute feet than you'd find in Milton, for example, has been a model for American poets for a century.  Again, read it aloud, respecting but not overdoing the rhymes, until it sounds as clear as a speech.

    'Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak,
     But now I'm bewitched by your delicate cheek,
     And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!'-
     'We never do work when we're ruined,' said she.

      'You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
      And you'd sigh, and you'd sock; but at present you seem
      To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!'-
      'True. One's pretty lively when ruined,' said she....

                        from The Ruined Maid, Thomas Hardy (1866)

Hardy's anapestal, four beat or tetrameter line is another approach.  Nowadays, as then, the combination of metrical scheme and rhyme lends itself to irony and comedy.

One four-line stanza in English is ballad measure, a common songwriting measure, which has several variations.  (Here x stands for no rhyme).  One recognizable from hymns is xaxa xbxb and so on.  The x lines are usually four beats long, the a and b lines three.  Look at Dickinson.  Another variation is abab cdcd, really quatrains, but with the odd-numbered lines of four beats, the even of three.   You can hear these as well in ancient songs as you can in poetry by Louise Bogan.   Ballad measure is accentual; that is it has a regular number of strong accents in each like line, but no set number of syllables, a very convenient feature for fitting lyrics to music.

               Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
                 Old Time is still a flying:
               And this same flower that smiles to day,
                 To morrow will be dying.

               The glorious Lamp of Heaven, the Sun,
                 The higher he's a getting;
               The sooner will his Race be run,
                 And neerer he's to Setting....

                            from To The Virginis, To Make Much of Time, Robert Herrick (1648)

Here, in this well-worn lyric, Herrick uses alternates iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter with an abab, cbcb, etc.  rhyme scheme.   Separating rhymes by a line allows an easier pacing, so the entire quatrain may avoid the trap often found in couplets, where each couplet is harshly end-stopped.  (Pope, though his essays in verse can be slow going, resists this with unusual skill.).   A noteworthy feature of ballad measure is that the three-beat line permits a pause after or lingering during the line.

            When Love with unconfined wings
              Hovers within my gates,
            And my divine Althea brings
              To whisper at the grates;

            When I lie tangled in her hair
              And fetter'd to her eye,
            The birds that wanton in the air
              Know no such liberty.

                 from To Althea in Prison, Richard Lovelace (1649)

Though Lovelace lays out the piece in 8-line stanzas, you can readily see ballad measure in this piece, in this case abab, cdcd, etc., with the first and third lines iambic pentameter, and the second and fourth lines iambic trimeter.   (In ballad measure, there is no fixed rule on how lines are laid out.  They are often continuous for each section, as is terza rima.)

A combinations of three quatrains and a couplet, ababcdcdefefgg, yields the Elizabethan sonnet.  Generally, each line is five beats, accentual/syllabic, but there are many exceptions.  There are even good sonnets written with a regular pattern of variable line lengths.  There are thousands upon thousands of these of varying quality.  Shakespeare published 154 of them, including those described as "the sonnets to the dark mistress," which you can find on the archives page.  One problem with the Elizabethan sonnet is its ending couplet, which can create a very harsh ending.  Shakespeare himself didn't avoid this trap all of the time; sometimes, though rarely, his sonnets just hit a wall.   He also shows the best way to avoid it; simply adopt the overall structure of a Petrarchan sonnet -- i.e., sections of 8 lines and 6 lines.  Thinking of the couplet as the end of a six-line section encourages the conclusion to begin one to two lines before the couplet, so that the couplet seems firmly joined to the rest of the poem.  The other way is to write Petrarchan sonnets (see below), which are clearly divided into two segments, shown by their rhyme scheme, one 8 lines long, the other and concluding one 6.

Five-line stanzas, with a wide variety of forms and rhyme schemes, are relatively common in English though a common rhyme order for them is not.  It depends on what you're trying to do.

Another is the sestet, as in abcabc, sometimes used alone (as in Frederick Feirstein's Psychiatrist at the Cocktail Party). Most often sestets are seen in conjunction with something else in a stanzaic form, such as a sonnet, or an ode by Keats (ababcdecde or the English ode stanza).   The sestet, whether as part of a stanza, or by itself, can be used to create much variety in sound, not only in its strict form, but in common variations such as abccba, abcdcd, and so on.  Keats uses such variation of the order in a way that remarkably resembles the movement toward final resolution in a piece of music.  As stanzas lengthen, variable line length in a regular pattern becomes more attractive.

...What leaf-fringed legends haunt about thy shapes      (c
Of deities or mortals or of both                                   (d
In Tempe or in shades of Arcady.                                (e
What men and gods are these what maidens loth,      (d
What mad pursuits, what struggles to escape,            (c
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy....          (e
                        from Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats (1805)

A combination of two quatains (into an octave) and one sestet yields the Petrarchan sonnet, abbaabbacdecde (and many slight variations, particularly in the sestet's order).  Generally, these fourteen lines are all accentual/syllabic with five strong beats each.  The Petrarch sonnet is a more open form than the Elizabethan; and poets over the centuries have taken considerable liberties in varying the sestet's rhyme scheme.  Not so with Millay's below:

Thou art not lovelier than lilacs,- no,
  Nor honeysuckle; thou art not more fair
  Than small white single poppies,- I can bear
Thy beauty; though I bend before thee, though
From left to right, not knowing where to go,
  I turn my troubled eyes, nor here nor there
  Find any refuge from thee, yet I swear
So has it been with mist,- with moonlight so.

Like him who day by day unto his draught
  Of delicate poison adds him one drop more
Till he may drink unharmed the death of ten,
Even so, inured to beauty, who have quaffed
  Each hour more deeply than the hour before,
I drink- and live- what has destroyed some men.

                          from Renascence, Edna. St. Vincent Millay (1917)

But she more often varied the sestet than not.  Her collected sonnets are worth study, as she brought this antique form (nearly 7 hundred years old) into bright, contemporary usage, particularly in the later ones (still under copyright, so not reproducible here.)   Say this one aloud a lot until you get a good sense of the tension between the sentence and the line and rhyme.

The octave is also prevalent in English poetry, and is sometimes, as noted above, a fusion of quatrains.  Varieties include abbaabba, ababcdcd, abbcabbc (an "open" falling rhyme sometimes used by Dante in canzones), abbacddc and so on.  Used alone, and frequently in combination with sestets, as in the Petrarchan sonnet.  Even more than the sestet, the octave on its own can be varied in length and in rhyme scheme, provided its value as a formal element isn't lost by radically varying it from stanza to stanza.

A variation on the octave is ottava rima, rhyming abababcc, derived from Italian and used most notably by Byron.  Generally this is accentual/syllabic.

  And further on a group of Grecian girls,
    The first and tallest her white kerchief waving,
  Were strung together like a row of pearls,
    Link'd hand in hand, and dancing; each too having
  Down her white neck long floating auburn curls
    (The least of which would set ten poets raving);
  Their leader sang- and bounded to her song,
  With choral step and voice, the virgin throng.

  And here, assembled cross-legg'd round their trays,
    Small social parties just begun to dine;
  Pilaus and meats of all sorts met the gaze,
    And flasks of Samian and of Chian wine,
  And sherbet cooling in the porous vase;
    Above them their dessert grew on its vine,
  The orange and pomegranate nodding o'er
    Dropp'd in their laps, scarce pluck'd, their mellow store....

                        from Don Juan, George (Lord) Byron (1824)

The limitation to three rhymes per stanza is demanding, but more than possible in English.   The length of the stanza is enough to be able to build a thought, action, speech or scene within its limitations.  For a more modern use of this, see Auden's Letter to Lord Byron, a very long and very amusing piece.

Another stanza is rime royal, seven lines ababbcc, in five-beat accentual/syllabic, or relatively fixed number of syllables.  This very tight stanza was used by as various a group as Auden, Masefield and our contemporary Michael Lind in The Alamo.  Its compressed size lends itself to humorous poems, but poets with a good ear can work this stanza into serious narrative and often have.  It's often used with a regular pattern of varying line lengths.

Another stanza is the Spenserian, named after the 16th century poet.  Nine lines long,  it too is accentual/syllabic.  Its first eight lines have five strong beats, and the last one six.     ababbcbcc  This is a very difficult stanza because of its few rhymes.   Nevertheless, Spenser wrote Faerie Queen, what is, as of yet, the longest poem in English.

    XI.   The laurel, meed of mighty conquerors
            And Poets sage; the Firre that weepeth still:
            The Willow, worne of forlorne Paramours;
            Eugh, obedient to the benders will;
            The Birch for shaftes; the Sallow for the mill;
            The Mirrhe sweete-bleeding in the bitter wound;
            The warlike Beech; the Ash for nothing ill;
            The fruitfull Olive; and the Platane round;
            The carver Holme; the Maple seeldom inward sound.

      X.  Led with delight, they thus beguile the way,
            Untill the blustring storme is overblowne;
            When, weening to returne whence they did stray,
            They cannot finde that path, which first was showne,
            But wander too and fro in waies unknowne,
            Furthest from end then, when they neerest weene,
            That makes them doubt their wits be not their owne:
            So many pathes, so many turnings seene,
            That which of them to take in diverse doubt they been....

                         from The Faerie Queen, Spenser (1596)

The diction is pretty remote, but if you say this tiny fragment of Faerie Queen aloud you'll quickly get a sense of this stanza, which is still periodically used in our time.

Stanzas of fourteen to eighteen lines are used in the canzone,  ( clearly an adaptation of the Greek ode. The canzones by Merrill and Auden have valid but different schemes than those in Dante, however),  as for instance the intricate scheme in Canzone 2 in Convivio, which is abbcabbccdeedfdfgg, or, broken out...


If you follow the way it breaks out carefully, you can see that Dante had larger ideas in mind with this stanza, however.  Look at how the stanza breaks on the volta, or cc rhyme in the middle (similar to the "turn" in a sonnet), and how it modulates between quatrain, brace and couplet, and how sections are tied together by common rhymes.  In  Dante's canzones the stanzas themselves are interlocked with rhyme schemes that are related but not quite the same, something Shakespeare often did on a smaller scale in sonnets, where there would be assonant rhyme in all four lines of a quatrain, but consonant rhyme between the first and third or second and forth lines as...

                ....in awe
                ...he ought

(The above are not from any sonnet; use them for your own quatrain or sonnet if you like.) While rhyme schemes like this requires considerable "earwork," they can offer modulation, development and recapitulation as satisfying as that in a piece of music.

Many larger forms are built from these stanzas, and an inventive poet can invent more (or new stanzas).  It is best if you invent to be sure someone hasn't already done it before you attach your name.   None are particularly complex in the "rule" stage; in use, particularly in combination, they are as challenging to a poet as the "simple" elements of music.  And if you know a little about permutations and combinations from statistics, you will quickly realize that the range of possibilities for the various stanzas, alone or in combination, approaches the infinite.   Add in word play, semantic variation, and the richness of figurative language, particularly those in the class of metaphor and symbol, and it's unlikely that any one, or any fifty thousand, poets will run out of material to make it new.  The issues, as for any poet ever, are does it sound good, does it mean anything, does it tell anything, will anyone understand it, and, though not always, is it mine?  (Don't take offense at the latter.  Without their borrowings from each other, the richness of be-bop music, of jazz, or of baroque, of probably of any music, would be greatly depleted.  It's okay to borrow a little, especially from poets out of copyright.   It can be precious, but sometimes it can be startling to find a familiar line in an unfamiliar poem.)



Lewis Turco, lately retired from State University of New York, has a fine book (New Book of Forms) from the University Press of New England that pretty well covers forms in poetry.  Find one or his Oxford version of the same thing.  Look for Tim Steele's new book All The Fun's In How You Say A Thing.  Or Karl Shapiro's old but reliable prosody.  There are a lot of forms.  And the list isn't fixed if you care to add your own.

While some, as Dr. Alfred Dorn, insist that each form has a range of subject matter appropriate to it, others, and a lot of exemplary literature, suggest this to be a tenuous proposition.  Are sonnets solely useful as lyric expressions of epiphanies or of love?  Richard Moore wrote a book-length narrative using the sonnet as a stanza.  Are highly structured, tightly rhymed stanzas inappropriate for anything but satire or lyrics?  John Masefied's narratives, written in rime royal, like Michael Lind's Alamo, suggest that it depends on the writer.