Versification in Poetry




Each line of poetry may be divided into metrical units known as feet. A foot is a group of syllables combined in one of several fixed patterns. These syllables, usually one to three in number, have a definite value in relation to each other. In the Classical languages the difference in the value of syllables depended upon what was known as quantity-that is, the amount of time required to pronounce the syllables; the syllables were called long or short and were so indicated in any scheme of metrical analysis. In English poetry, however, the basis of determining the value of syllables is not quantity but accent. Several systems of notating accent are used, including the Classical long and short marks:-u-v ; and the marks to indicate accented and unaccented syllables (also referred to as stressed and unstressed): /u/u or /x/x

In almost any line of English verse, some words or syllables require more time in pronunciation than others; but sense of time should not be regarded as of primary importance, as far as metrical analysis is concerned, except perhaps in feet in which a natural pause compensates for omitted syllables, as shown in the first of the following lines from Tennyson and in the line from Milton.

The iambic foot is the most common in English poetry; it is found chiefly in tetrameter and pentameter lines. In scanning poetry, one must pay attention to the meaning as well as to the rhythm and must be careful not to mispronounce words or to distort the emphasis of the sentence. Reading poetry aloud is one of the best ways to catch the rhythm. The prose sense of the poem indicates the true meter, and in turn the meter heightens the sense. Of course, some words allow more than one pronunciation, and words like heaven and even may be pronounced in one syllable or in two syllables, as the meter demands. Final nonsyllabic edis sometimes pronounced as a separate syllable, and syllabic vowels coming together are very frequently telescoped or elided, into one syllable. Note the scan sion of the following lines:


Nearly every line of verse of three or more feet contains a rhythmical pause known as the caesura, a name derived from Classical prosody. Some lines may have two or more pauses, but only the more emphatic one is the caesura. Although it is usual for this pause to come near the middle of the line, it may occur anywhere, between feet or within them. Indeed, variety and effectiveness are gained by a constant shifting of the esura in succeeding lines. As a rule, the caesura coincides with a pause in the sense. If the pause follows an accented syllable, the caesura is said to be masculine; if it follows an unaccented syllable, it is said to be feminine. A caesura is commonly indicated thus 11 .Each of the two segments of a line of poetry so divided is called a hemistich. Note the caesuras in the following lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Feminine caesuras occur in lines 2 and 10; the others are masculine.

High on a throne of royal state, // which far

Outshone the wealth of Ormusil and of Ind,

Or where the gorgeous East // with richest hand

Showers on her kings // barbaric pearl and gold,

Satan exalted sat, // I by merit raised

To that bad eminence; // and, from despair

Thus high uplifted beyond hope, // I aspires

Beyond thus high, // insatiate to pursue

Vain war with Heaven; // and, by success untaught,

His proud imaginationsl // thus displayed.

-Milton, Paradise Lost


The Alexandrine is a line composed of six iambic feet; it is so called because it was used in Old French poems on Alexander the Great. Although widely used in France, it has never become popular in England. It was used in the Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (c. 1300), along with a seven-accent line; occasionally in the miracle and the morality plays; and in Drayton’s Polyolbion (c. 1613). When the Alexandrine was alternated with the seven-accent line, the combination was called poulter’s measure, because in the words of George Gascoigne (1575) the poulterer "giveth twelve for one dozen, and thirteen for another." Henry How ard, Earl of Surrey, thus illustrates poulter’s measure:

Pope characterized the Alexandrine as "languishingly slow"-

A needless Alexandrine ends the song / That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

-Pope, An Essay on Criticism

Used at the end of shorter-line stanzas, the Alexandrine adds the effect of dignity and serves to join the stanzas in harmonious progression. See the Spenserian stanza and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.


The most stately meter in English poetry is blank verse-that is, unrhymed verse written in iambic pentameter measure. As far as we know, the Earl of Surrey (c. 1517-1547) was the first English poet to use it. He borrowed it from Italian writers ~~loyed it in a translation of two books of the Aeneid,) Many other poets followed his example; Maiil6we used it in Tamburlaine in 1589, and his "mighty line," as it came to be called, set the fashion for Shakespeare and later dramatists. Because of its vigor and majesty, it also became the established measure for English epics and other dignified narrative verse, like Keats’s Hy perion and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Surrey’s blank verse is a little stiff, adhering closely to the exact iambic movement. Moreover, it is rather consistently end-stopped (a natural pause falling at the end of a line), and hence has the quality of conventional couplets without rhyme. Marlowe’s early verse shows a similar stiffness, but his later verse has considerably more flexibility. The development of Shakespeare’s drama to full maturity runs parallel to the increasing adaptability of his blank verse, as can be seen in the change from the essentially lyric impulse of Romeo and Juliet to the subtly dramatic movement of speech in Antony and Cleopatra. With Miltonj blank verse achieves broad rhetorical variety, partly through the run-on line (the end of a line does not correspond to a natural pause in speech; see eniamhment, p. 12) and the changing position of the caesura. Wordsworth shows a certain Miltonic influence, but adapts blank verse to serve his purpose of more simple and direct communication. Tennyson elevates it to a new eloquence suitable for the variety of themes with which he concerned himself. The essential naturalness of blank verse has been felt sufficient justification for its continued use by many modern poets. No other set meter in English lends itself so well to the characteristic expression of individual authors.

Who can express the slaughter of that night,
Or tell the number of the corpses slain,
Or can in tears bewail them worthily?
The ancient famous city falleth down,
That many years did hold such seignory.
With senseless bodies every street is spread,
Each palace, and sacred porch of the gods.

-Surrey, Aeneid

Behold me here, divine Zenocrate,
Raving, impatient, desperate, and mad,
Breaking my steel6d lance, with which I burst
The rusty beams of Janus’ temple doors,
Letting out Death and tyrannizing War,
To march with me under this bloody flag!
And if thou pitiest Tamburlaine the Great,
Come down from Heaven, and live with me again!

-Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
-Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Sir, I will eat no meat, I’ll not drink, sit;
If idle talk will once be necessary,
I’ll not sleep neither: this mortal house I’ll ruin,
Do Caesar what he can. Know, sit, that I
Will riot wait pinion’d at your master’s court;
Nor once be chastised with the sober eye
Of dull Octavia. Shall they hoist me up
And show me to the shouting varletry
Of censuring Rome? Rather a ditch in Egypt
Be gentle grave unto me! Rather on Nilus’ mud
Lay me stark naked, and let the water-flies
Blow me into abhorring!

-Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

Of Mari’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse.

-Milton, Paradise Lost

. . . if from the public way you turn your steps
Up the tumultuous brook of Green-head Ghyll,
You will suppose that with an upright path
Your feet must struggle; in such bold ascent
The pastoral mountains front you, face to face.
But, courage! for around that boisterous brook
The mountains have all opened out themselves,
And made a hidden valley of their own.

-Wordsworth, Michael

So all day long the noise of battle rolled
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur’s table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their lord,
King Arthur; then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the ocean and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.

-Tennyson, Morte dArthur

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.

Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning

After a rain.

-Robert Frost, Birches


As can be seen in some of the preceding examples, all feet in a line of verse need not be of the same kind. Indeed, if they were, in a poem of any length the result would be not only obviously monotonous but also rather unnatural in phrasing. Thus variety in metrical pattern is both essential and pleasing. Sometimes a line contains more or fewer syllables than the prevailing number. The addition of one or two syllables at the beginning of a line is known as anacrusis; a weak or feminine ending. The omission of syllables at the beginning of a line is called truncation; at the end of a line, catalexis. A line terminating in an imperfect foot is thus called catalectic. If the line ends with a complete metrical foot, it is acatalectic. In the scansion of a line of verse a caret (A) may be used to indicate the omission of a syllable.

possibilities of metrical variation are almost infinite; English poetry so abounds in rich examples that it is useless to try to catalog more than a few. One of the more interesting experiments is Coleridge’s Christabel, which, according to the author, is founded on the principle of counting the accents, not the syllables, in each line. Though the number of syllables varies from seven to twelve, there are only four accents.


The term sprung rhythm originated with the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and is associated mainly with his work. The principle, however, can be seen as far back as Old English poetry. Hopkins noted the existence of reversed feet; these, he said, involved "putting the stress where, to judge by the rest of the metre, the slack should be and the slack where the stress." What he called counterpoint rhythm occurred when "the reversal is repeated in two feet running"; this could have the effect of the "super inducing or mounting of a new rhythm upon the old." The musical analogy gains its point from the fact that 11 two rhythms are in some manner running at once." In the following example from Hopkins’s own work, the iambic basis is counterpointed by two anapests:

Hopkins used the sign to denote the existence of such counterpointing. Hopkins pointed out that sprung rhythm emerges when a regular metrical pattern is obscured by the amount of counterpointing. "If," he wrote, "you counterpoint throughout, since one only of the counter point rhythms is actually heard, the other is really destroyed or cannot come to exist." Sprung rhythm, as Hopkins described it, is usually measured in feet of from one to four syllables, although any number of unstressed syllables can be used to achieve a particular effect. The stress regularly falls on the first syllable of each foot (where there is only one syllable the stress falls on that). Sprung rhythm is marked by four principal types of feet-the monosyllabic, trochaic, dactyllic, and First Paeonic, marked -xxx . The most obvious feature of sprung rhythm is extreme metrical irregularity.

Hopkins felt that two important advantages in this type of rhythm were that "it is nearest to the rhythm of prose" and that it combines opposite, and one would have thought, incompatible excellences, markedness of rhythm . . . (and) naturalness of expression." (See also "Sprung Rhythm" by Harold Whitehall, 28-54 in Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Kenyon Critics, New Directions, 1944.)


Free verse (or vers libre) is rhythmical poetry written without regard to set patterns of meter, rhyme, or length of line. It depends for its effect upon cadence, upon subtle variations in rhythm and in length of line, upon recurring images, and upon what Amy Lowell, an ardent exponent of the form, called "a delicate sense of balance." It often makes generous use also of alliteration and assonance (see pp. 9-10). Some literary prose has a rhythm that makes it almost indistinguishable from free verse. Such writers as Sir Thomas Browne, Milton, De Quincey, and Ruskin wrote many passages that touch the borderland of ‘Verse and prose. Of equal or more importance in this connection are countless portions of the nglish Bible, particularly passages from Isaiah, job, Psalms, the Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. These were originally Hebrew poems, unrhymed but rich in rhythmic flow. The King James translators recaptured much of the Hebrew music, and only the slightest rearrangements are necessary to turn the verses into poetic form.

The Lord reigneth;
He is clothed with majesty;
The Lord is clothed with strength,
Wherewith he hath girded himself.
The world also is established,
That it cannot be moved.
Thy throne is established of old:
Thou art from everlasting.

-Psalms, 93

The essential quality of free verse is inherent in English poetry from its very beginning. It is seen in the irregularity and the vigorous swing of Anglo-Saxon verse, with its varying alliterative design; and it appears also in Middle English poems, like Piers Plowman, that were written in alliterative pattern. Any poem that relies only upon rhyme as its distinguishing metrical mark and derives its peculiar power from irregularity of rhythm and form suggests a tendency toward the structure of free verse. Such poems are Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, and Arnold’s Dover Beach. Then, too, there are unrhymed poems that approximate free verse, such as Arnold’s Philomela. The American poet Walt Whitman is one of the greatest masters of free verse.

When I heard the learned astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me

When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add,

divide, and measure them;
When 1, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he
lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till, rising and gliding out, I wandered off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Looked up in perfect silence at the stars.

-Walt Whitman, When I Heard the Learned Astronomer

Among modern poets writing free verse Ezra Pound and D. H. Lawrence have been particularly successful. Pound believed that the poet should "compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome." And D. H. Lawrence said there was one type of poetry which concerned itself with the ideal and the abstract, and another which concerned itself with "the immediate present." Free verse was of the latter type. In free verse, he wrote, "there is no rhythm which returns upon itself, no serpent of eternity with its tail in its own mouth. There is no static perfection, none of that finality which we find so satisfying because we are so frightened."

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark


I came down the steps with my pitcher

And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was
at the trough before me.

-D. H. Lawrence, Snake



Rhyme is a very old poetical device. Although it does not appear commonly in English verse until after the Norman Conquest of 1066, it was frequently used in Latin poetry as early as the fourth century along with the traditional quantitative measure. Because rhyme was common in Latin folk poetry, it became a distinctive mark of the Latin hymns of the Church, and as these were early used in Britain, they exerted considerable influence upon English verse, which, be fore the Middle English period, had employed the Germanic system of alliteration. Rhyme is the similarity of final sounds in two or more words. Words are said to rhyme if the accented vowels have the same sound, if the sounds ollowing those vowels are the same, and if the consonants preceding the vowels are different. Examples are deep sleep, shade-made, orn-forlorn, swallow-follow, snow-flow. Usage allows so-called imperfect rhymes, sometimes referred to as slant rhymes or pararhymes that is, words with slight variations in the accented vowels, such as earth-hearth, heaven-given, love-prove, guest-feast. A rhyme in which only single syllables correspond is called a masculine rhyme, as home–roam; one in which two syllables correspond is called a feminine rhyme, as otion-potion; one in which three syllables correspond is called a triple or multiple rhyme, as tenderly-slenderly. Rhyming words usually come at the ends of lines, but sometimes internal rhymes are used in which the last word in a line rhymes with a word near the middle of the line.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen;
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken
The ice was all between.
–Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Rhyme serves a double purpose in a poem-it accentuates the rhythm, and it binds the lines into stanzas or other structural units. The rhyme scheme of a poem or a stanza is indicated by letters of the alphabet, rhyming lines being designated with the same letter. The rhyme scheme of the stanza quoted above is abcb, with the second and fourth lines rhyming. Two other terms, homonym and homophone, should be noted in connection with rhyme. A homonym (lit., having the same name) is a word pronounced in the same way as another but having a different meaning, origin, and-in most cases-spelling: dear-deer, praise-prays-preys. The homonym may be the basis not only of rhyming but also of punning, as in Donne’s A Hymn to God the Father: "When thou hast done, thou hast not done." A homophone (lit., having the same sound) is a letter pronounced the same as another: arc-hark, seraph-tariff.


The earliest English poetry secures its metrical effect by means of alliteration, sometimes called beginning rhyme-or initial-rhyme, as distinguished from end rhyme. The Anglo-Saxon line of verse is broken into two parts, each of which contains two strongly stressed syllables. The third stressed syllable in the line alliterates with the first or the second stressed syllable, or with both. Only identical consonants alliterate, but all vowels alliterate. With this prominence given to stressed syllables, there is considerable freedom about unstressed syllables, both in number and in position.

Middle English poetry revived for a time, often excessively, the alliterative verse form. It is seen at its best in some of the poetic romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and in Piers Plowman, the opening lines of which are scanned as indicated below.

The likeness of initial sounds in words and syllables gradually fell out of use as a metrical device, giving way to the newly introduced nd-rhyme of the lyric poetry of the Proven~al troubadours and the Norman minstrels at the English court. In the Prologue to the Parson’s Tale, Chaucer takes a fling at the trick of alliteration commonly used in poems written in the Northern dialect, and has the parson apologize for telling his tale in prose instead of in verse.

But trusteth wel, I am a Southren man,
I kan nat geeste "rum, ram, ruf" by lettre,
Ne, God woot, rym holde I but litel bettre;
And therefore, if yow list, I wol nat glose,
I wol yow telle a myrie tale in prose.

–Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Discarded as a principle of poetic structure, alliteration later became a mere ornament. As such it was used freely in early Elizabethan lyric poetry, and has been commonly employed in subsequent verse; indeed it has been something of a stylistic instinct among all English-speaking peoples. The skillful introduction of alliteration can greatly intensify the effect of even a matter-of-fact passage.

Yet the oak is left

That grew beside their door; and the remains

Of the unfinished Sheep-fold may be seen
Beside the boisterous brook of Green-head Ghyll.

-Wordsworth, Michael

An excess of alliteration produces a ludicrous effect, as Shakespeare well demonstrates in Quince’s Prologue to Pyramus and Thisbe.

Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broach’d his boiling bloody breast;

-Shakespeare,A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Some poets, intrigued by the rhythm of Anglo-Saxon poetry, have tried to reproduce in modern verse the effect of primitive alliteration. Tennyson’s translation of the Anglo-Saxon Battle of Brunanburh reproduces fairly well the spirit of the original, although he uses short lines instead of the long lines of the original.

Never had huger
Slaughter of heroes
Slain by the sword-edge

Such as old writers
Have writ of in histories
Hapt in this isle, since
Up from the East hither
Saxon and Angle from
Over the broad billow
Broke into Britain with
Haughty war-workers who
Harried the Welshman, when
Earls that were lured by the
Hunger of glory gat
Hold of the land.

-Tennyson, Battle of Brunanburh

W. H. Auden has written verse making use of alliteration in the traditional long line.

"0 where are you going?" said reader to rider,
"That valley is fatal when furnaces burn,
Yonder’s the midden whose odors will madden,
That gap is the grave where the tall return."

"0 do you imagine," said fearer to farer,
"That dusk will delay on your path to the pass,
Your diligent looking discover the lacking
Your footsteps feel from granite to grass?"

-W. H. Auden, Epilogue


Assonance is an agreement of accented vowel sounds preceded and followed by unlike consonant sounds. it is’ a principle of verse in the Song of Roland–the old French epic, and in Spanish poetry. It is found also in early Latin poetry of the Church. In English poetry it appears only as an ornament, but it is capable of interesting if subtle effects. In the first example below, assonance appears mainly in the last words of the lines; in the second it is used throughout the stanza, along with rhyme.

Maiden, crowned with glossy blackness,
Lithe as panther forest-roaming,
Long-armed naiad, when she dances,

On a stream of ether floating.

–George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy


Though consonance generally means the harmony of sounds, as opposed to dissonance, the discord or incongruity of sounds, the word has a specific application to the use of language in poetry: consonance is the recurrence of certain consonants in combination with various vowels and other consonants. The underlined consonants in the lines below illustrate this effect.


Onomatopoeia is said to occur when the sound of a word echoes the sense of the word. There is indeed a small group of genuinely onomatopoetic words, such as murmur, buzz, clang, crack, boom. Coleridge, in the following passage from Cbristabel, makes obvious use of such words:

And the owls have awakened the crowing cock,


–Coleridge, Christabel

It should be emphasized that the meaning of a word is of primary importance and its onomatopoetic effect always secondary. Furthermore, similar vowel and consonant sounds are capable of widely different effects in different contexts. A passage of Pope’s is of interest here. Notice the different effects, for example, achieved with the letters.

‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when the loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar:
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;

-Pope, An Essay on Criticism

It would seem that "smoothness" and "roughness" may often be represented more by such things as the movement of the verse and rhyme scheme than by the actual sound of individual words. In the following stanza, for example, Dryden attempts to suggest in words something of the quality of music (note the onomatopoetic "double, double, double beat"). But one should note, too, the way in which the short lines and the quick recurrence of rhyme suggest shrillness.

The trumpet’s loud clangor
Excites us to arms

With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
The double, double, double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries: "Hark! the foes come;
Charge, charge, ’tis too late to retreat!"

-Dryden, A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day


Repetition as a poetic device may involve a single word, a phrase, a line, or even an entire stanza. Used in a hymn or other song, it appears as a refrain or a chorus. Sometimes the poet varies the effect by making slight changes in the repeated phrase, line, or stanza. (a) Incremental repetition, typical of the old ballads, is the repetition of a phrase or sentence with a slight change and increment of meaning from stanza to stanza.

"Why dois your brand sac drap wi bluid,

Why dois your brand sac drap wi bluid,
And why sac sad gang yee 0?"

"0 1 hae killed my hauke sac guid,

0 1 hae killed my hauke sac guid,
And I had nae mair bot hee 0."

"Your haukis bluid was nevir sac reid,

Your haukis bluid was nevir sac reid,
My deir son I tell thee 0."
"0 1 hae killed my reid-roan steid,

0 1 hae killed my reid-roan steid,
That erst was sac fair and frie 0."
Edward, Edward,
Mither, mither,
Edward, Edward,
Mither, mither

-Anon., Edward

(b) Repetition of words at the beginning of successive clauses is called anaphora. An instance is found in Keats’s sonnet, "When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be" in which a series of three ideas forming the three quatrains are introduced as follows:

(line 1) When I have fears that I may cease to be
(line 5) When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
(line 9) And when I see, fair creature of an hour!

(c) The refrain is illustrated by Spenser’s Epithalamion, each long stanza of which ends with a slight variation of

So I unto my selfe alone will sing,

The woods shall to me answer and my Eccho ring.

-Spenser, Epithalamion

(d) The chorus is illustrated by Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast, which repeats as a chorus the last four to ten lines of each stanza.

(e) Miscellaneous functions of repetition. The first two lines of George Peele’s Fair and Fair,

Fair and fair, and twice so fair,

As fair as any may be;

-Peele, Fair and Fair

are repeated as the first two lines of the second stanza, then both these stanzas are repeated in their entirety midway in the poem, and the first stanza repeated yet again at the end. In A Man’s a Man for A’ That, Burns repeats the phrase, "an’ a’ that," (or "for a’ that") at the end of the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth lines in each stanza, and joins the two phrases ("For a’ that, an’ a’ that") to form the fifth line throughout. In "The Tiger" Blake repeats the first stanza as the last stanza, with only slight variation, and in "The Lamb" he has four pairs of repeated lines out of a total of twenty. Frost gets a strong effect by repeating only the last line of "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," "And miles to go before I sleep."


The use of enjambment (or run-on lines) not only often prevents stiffness but also contributes much to the suggestiveness of poetry. In the following passage from Milton, for example, the long period (i.e., sentence) and the strategic placement of the words Sheer and Dropt at the start of lines reinforce the sense of a fall-and in Ausonian land

Men called him Mulciber; and how he fell
From Heaven they fabled, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o’er the crystal battlements: from morn
To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve,
A summer’s day, and with the setting sun
Dropt from the zenith, like a falling star,

On Lemnos, the Aegaean isle.

-Milton, Paradise Lost

Similarly, in the following lines from George Herbert’s Church Monuments, the statement of dissolution is made vivid by the apparent looseness of the verse:

flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust
That measures all our time: which also shall
Be crumbled into dust.

-Herbert, Church Monuments

Enjambment can, however, be used to achieve many different effects. in Robert Herrick’s "The Winding Sheet," for example, the lines occur:

All wise, all equal, and all just
Alike i’ th’ dust.

-Herrick, "The Winding Sheet"

At first "just" seems linked with "justice" and parallel to "equal" and "wise." The reader is jolted when he reads on and finds that the word is used in a very different sense; the surprise drives home the poet’s point more emphatically. The device has continued to be us,-d in modern poetry, as in the following lines of Dylan Thomas.

After the funeral, mule praises, brays,
Windshake of sailshaped ears, muffle-toed tap
Tap happily of one peg in the thick
Grave’s foot….

-Dylan Thomas, After the Faneral It Memory of Anne Jones.


Meter and figurative language-that is, language that expresses one thing in terms of another by analogy, extension, or other association–are two major and virtually indispensable ingredients of poetry. A critical approach to poetry requires knowledge not only of meter but also of the function and scope of the various figures of speech. These should never be mere decoration; they are one of the means by which a poet can develop and express his meaning. Satisfactory definition of figures of speech is difficult since in ommon usage the various terms have often been made interchangeable. There is a tendency to include symbols, similes, and metaphors under the heading of "imagery"; "metaphorical" is loosely used to mean "figurative"; and "symbolical" or "symbolizes" is often applied to almost any of the figurative qualities of language. But each of these terms has a specific meaning, however arbitrary, and it is important to learn these meanings in order to have a terminology for analyzing the subtleties and complexities of poetry. The trope, which is the generic name for figures of speech (tropology is the use of figurative language), exists in a number of forms, of which four are most important: the image, the symbol, the simile, and the metaphor.

An image is the representation of a sensory experience or of an object which can be perceived through one of the five senses. In Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale we find "a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense" (feeling), "a beaker full of . . . the blushful Hippocrene" (taste and sight), "verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways" (sight), "soft incense hangs upon the boughs" (smell), and "The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves" (sound). Such lines evocative of sensation as

Dark eyed,
0 woman of my dreams,
Ivory sandaled.

-Ezra Pound, Dance Figure

became the ideal early in the twentieth century of a group of poets called the Imagists. The Imagists believed that "poetry should render particulars exactly, and not deal in vague generalities" and that poetry should "employ always the exact word, not the merely decorative word." Their inspiration was partly drawn from a short Japanese poetical form called the Haiku, consisting usually of a single sharp image. The image is literal and concrete in its implications, no matter what thoughts or feelings it may arouse; the symbol, on the other hand, is literal, and at the same time abstract in its implications. The symbol always communicates a second meaning along with its literal meaning. For example, one can read Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale and enjoy the poem for its almost indescribably rich and beautiful imagery. The nightingale itself, on the most literal level, is a bird whose song inspires the poet and to whom the poet addresses himself. Interpreted on a deeper level, the nightingale symbolizes immortality. A symbol stands for something -in this case immortality-not specifically named or discussed within the poem. A symbol, then, is a highly dramatic and economical way for a poet to express his meaning. There are two kinds of symbols those whose abstract meanings emerge only out of the context and thus have to be created within the terms of a given poem, and those whose abstract meanings are more or less fixed by tradition and use. Examples of the first kind are the nightingale in the Keats poem just mentioned, Blake’s Tiger (evil, or experience), and George Herbert’s Collar (spiritual restraint). An example of the second kind of symbol, that with a traditional meaning, is given in the following lines

Curse on that Crosse (quoth then the Sarazin)

That keepes thy body from the bitter fit;
-Spenser, The Faerie Queene

in which the "Crosse" symbolizes the redeeming power of Christianity; or in this quotation

Strew on her roses, roses,

And never a spray of yew!

-Arnold, Requiescat

in which, as is established by custom, "roses" symbolize life and beauty and "yew" symbolizes grief and mourning. Frost’s "The Road Not Taken," in which the two roads symbolize the element of decision in human destiny, is an example of a modern poem using a traditional symbol. A group of late nineteenth-century French poets, called the Symbolists, worked to symbolize general truths, metaphysical insights, and ysteries, and had a strong influence on a number of English and American poets who followed them. We can see from the example of Ode to a Nightingale that details expressed as images contribute to the development of a symbol. Indeed, it is customary to find various kinds of figures of speech working together in this way. The simile and the metaphor should be considered together, for they both express analogy, that is a comparison between one thing and another. The difference between them is simple: a simile establishes a comparison by the use of the word "like" or."as"; a metaphor establishes an identity between the things being compared. A simile may be brief, as, for example, in

The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne.

-T . S. Eliot, The Waste Land

or it may be extended through a whole poem, as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97 ("How like a winter hath my absence been/ From thee," etc.) or Vaughan’s The World ("I saw Eternity the other night,/ Like a great ring of pure and endless light," etc.). A metaphor also may be brief, as in these lines

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

-Hopkins, I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day

or it may be extended through a whole poem, as it is in Campion’s lyric ("There is a garden in her face,/ Where roses and white lilies grow," etc.). A metaphor should not be confused with an image. It can be distinguished from a symbol in that the two terms involved in a metaphor are both mentioned literally, or unmistakably suggested. If any of these four terms can justifiably be used more inclusively, it is symbol, into which images, similes, and metaphors sometimes extend. Ten other relevant terms should be mentioned briefly:

Personification is the representation of an inanimate object or abstract idea as having the attributes of a living person.

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me.

-Ernily Dickinson, The Chariot

Allegory is the presentation of a continuous action or extended idea by means of symbols or personifications; a narrative in which the underlying meaning is different from the surface meaning. Spenser’s Faerie Queene is the best-known allegory in English poetry. An eponym is a name so commonly associated with the attributes of its owner that it comes to symbolize those attributes; for example, Helen (beauty), Hercules (strength), Croesus (wealth). An epithet is a word or phrase added -to or substituted for the name of a deity or person. Examples include Loving Father (God), daughters of Eve (women), the Galilean (Christ).

Metonymy is the use of one word for another with which it is for one reason or another closely connected –symbolically, causally, physically, or otherwise; for example, in the first line below, scepter, learning, and physic here stand for king, scholar, and doctor.

The scepter, learning, physic, must

All follow this, and come to dust.

-Shakespeare, Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun

Synecdoche is the use of the name of a part to signifythe whole; or of the name of the material to signify what is made from it.

often beneath the wave [the sea], wide from this ledge.

-Hart Crane, At Melville’s Tomb

Oxymoron is the effective combination of contradictory or incongruous words, as in the following quotation.

In their amazement lyke Narcissus vaine,
Whose eyes him starv’d: so plenty makes me poore.

-Spenser, Amoretti, 35

Litotes (understatement) is a means of expressing, for example, the affirmative by using the negative of the contrary.

And nobody calls you a dunce,
and people suppose me clever.

-Browning, Youth and Art

Hyperbole is the use of exaggeration or overstate ment to heighten the effect.

I lov’d Ophelia; forty thousand brothers
Could not with all their quantity of love
Make up my sum.

-Shakespeare, Hamlet

A paradox is a statement that is apparently contradictory. On scrutiny, however, the apparent contradiction disappears, and the statement is found to be true and richly meaningful.

That I may rise, and stand, o’er throw mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

-Donne, Holy Sonnets, 14


A stanza is a group of two or more lines of poetry combined according to some definite plan and constituting a division of a poem. The effect of a stanza depends upon the rhyme scheme, the length of the lines, and other metrical devices. Short lines may be used to suggest intensity, as long lines tend to reflect greater leisureliness. A quick succession of rhymes may suggest compactness and restraint, as unrhymed lines or separated rhymes may suggest freedom or relaxation. Technical variations can provide interest and prevent what otherwise might become monotony. Most important, stanza patterns should be appropriate to or reflect the nature of the subject. As a rule, stanzas are classified according to the number of their lines; a few, however, derive their names from special uses or origins.

THE COUPLET (two-line stanza-rhyming aa) Lines rhyming in Pairs are called couplets. (The technical name for a group of two lines is distich.)

Although a few poems divide the couplets into separate stanzas, and some others group them into four- or six line stanzas, most poems using couplets move continuously without stanza divisions. Two forms are common—one composed of iambic pentameter lines, the other of iambic or trochaic tetrameter lines. Following are examples of the tetrameter measure-octosyllabic couplets:

The western waves of ebbing day

Rolled o’er the glen their level way;

Each purple peak, each flinty spire,

Was bathed in floods of living fire.

And from a boy, to youth he grew;

The man put off the stripling’s hue;

The man matured and fell away

Into the season of decay;

And ever o’er the trade he bent,

And ever lived on earth content.

-Scott, The Lady of the Lake

-Browning, The Boy and the Angel

In the nightmare of the dark

All the dogs of Europe bark,

And the living nations wait,

Each sequestered in its hate;

-W. H. Auden, In Memory of W. B. Yeats

Following are examples of iambic pentameter couplets. The first, from Chaucer, represents an early use of the couplet, though not as a stanza. The second, from Pope, is written in what is known as the heroic couplet, so called from its use in the consciously grandiloquent drama of the later seventeenth century (Dryden and Otway). The two lines of the heroic couplet express a fairly complete thought, with the second line often reinforcing the first; because of this completeness, with the thought ending with the second line, the couplet is said to be closed or end-stopped. The third example from Keats is called the open or run-on couplet because, as in Chaucer, the thought is carried beyond the end of the two lines. The closed couplet was the favorite medium of the didactic and satiric verse of the neoclassical period of English literature, and it is well suited to those types. It is also particularly appropriate for epigrams (see p. 24); a little practice will show how easy it is to memorize heroic couplets. The open couplet was popular with the nineteenth-century Romanticists. The example from Endymion is somewhat extreme in that the rhyming words are made so unimportant that they are easily lost to the ear. The last quotation, from Karl Shapiro, represents the survival of the ecasyllabic couplet in modern poetry, still more often found as a unit of a stanza rather than as a stanza itself.

A Knight ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To fyden out, he loved chivalrye,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.
-Chaucer, Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

Be silent always when you doubt your sense;
And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence;
Some positive, persisting fops we know,
Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with pleasure own your errors past,
And make each day a Critic on the last.
‘Tis not enough, your counsel still be true;
Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do;
Men must be taught as if you taught them not,
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.

-Pope, An Essay on Criticism

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth;
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.

By marring the image, by the black device
Of the goat-god, by the clown of Paradise,
By fruits of cloth and by the navel’s bud,
By itching tendrils and by strings of blood,
By ugliness, by the shadow of our fear,
By ridicule, by the fig-leaf patch of hair.

-Keats, Endymion

THE TERCET (three-line stanza)

The tercet, a three-line stanza built on a single rhyme, as in the first quotation below, has obvious limitations in an extended poem.’It is more effective combined with a refrain as in the Herrick poem. But it is most successful when used with an intricate rhyme scheme known as terza rima, a scheme, borrowed from the Italian, rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, and so on; Dante’s Divine Comedy is the best example of its use. Notice that the middle line of one stanza sets the rhyme for the stanza following, a pattern of great charm in that it makes the movement of verse continuous by binding one stanza to another. Note how Shelley completes the pattern with a couplet; another plan closes with a four-line stanza rhyming alternately. The quotation from Auden is in terza rima, but employs slant rhyme.

"The sap dries up: the plant declines.
A deeper tale my heart divines.
Know I not Death? the outward signs?"

In the hour of my distress,
When temptations me oppress,
And when I my sins confess,

-Tennyson, The Two Voices

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;

If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, 0 uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skyey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

-Shelley, Ode to the West Wind

It is your face I see, and morning’s praise

Of you is ghoses approval of the choice,
Filtered through roots of the effacing grass.

Fear, taking me aside, would give advice
"To conquer her, the visible enemy,
It is enough to turn away the eyes."

-W. H. Auden, Family Ghosts

THE QUATRAIN (four-line stanza)

The quatrain is the most popular stanza form in English poetry. It exists in many variations, of which the following are the most familiar:

The ballad stanza (rhyming abcb) The folk ballad and many ballads written in imitation of the folk ballad use the four-line stanza with alternating tetrameters and trimeters, and with the trimeters rhyming. Other well-known types of ballad stanzas rhyme abab and aabb and employ a scheme of line lengths different from the one indicated here.

There lived a wife at Usher’s Well,
And a wealthy wife was she;
She had three stout and stalwart sons,
And sent them o’er the sea.

-Anon., The Wife of Usher’s Well

The bride hath paced into the hall,
Red as a rose is she;
Nodding their heads before her goes
The merry minstrelsy.

–Coleridge, The Rime Of the Ancient Mariner

The heroic quatrain, or elegiac stanza (rhyming abab) The heroic quatrain, or elegiac stanza, another popular quatrain in English poetry, is composed of iambic pentameter lines rhyming alternately. Other meters and line lengths also are common.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea;
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

–Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like a season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

-George Herbert, Virtme

One rhyming pair enclosing another (rhyming abba) Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the most famous poem using this stanza form, is notable at once for its continuous dignity and its simple melody. As shown in the second example below, this formal stanza is also used effectively by contemporary poets.

Thy voice is on the rolling air;
I hear thee where the waters run;
Thou standest in the rising sun,

And in the setting thou art fair.
I praise the fall it is the human season

-Tennyson, In Memoriam

No more the foreign sun does meddle at our earth
Enforce the green and thaw the frozen soil to birth
Nor winter yet weigh all with silence the pine bough
-Archibald MacLeish, Immortal Autumn

Three rhyming lines (rhyming aaba) A four-line stanza with three rhyming lines is some what rare; it is used very effectively in FitzGerald’s The Rubdiydt of Omar Khayydm.

· Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
· jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness-
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

-FitzGerald, The Rubdiydt

Two couplets (rhyming aabb) Many quatrains are composed of two couplets.

A Sensitive Plant in a garden grew,
And the young winds fed it with silver dew,
And it opened its fan-like leaves to the light,
And closed them beneath the kisses of Night.

-Shelley, The Sensitive Plant

Four rhyming lines (rhyming aaaa) Occasionally a poet uses a quatrain employing only one rhyme.

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory;
One thing then learned remains to me
The woodspurge has a cup of three.

-Rossetti, The Woodspurge

THEQUINTAIN (five-line stanza) Various combinations of line length, meter, and rhyme may comprise this stanza. The following one in iambic tetrameter rhyming aahab is representative.

My lute, awake! Perform the last

Labor that thou and I shall waste,

And end that I have now begun;

For when this song is sung and past,

My lute, be still, for I have done.

-Wyatt, The Lover Complaineth the
Unkindness of His Love

THE SEXTAIN (six-line stanza) Various combinations of six lines may comprise this stanza.

0 mistress mine, where are you roaming?

0, stay and hear; your true love’s coming,

That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
journeys end in lovers meeting,

Every wise man’s son doth know.

-Shakespeare, Song from Twelfth Night

One of the interesting special stanzas in English poetry is the tail-rhyme stanza, made up of two parts, each of which has a short line (or tail) following longer lines; the two tails rhyme independently. A common form of this stanza, consisting of six lines (four rhyming tetrameters and two rhyming dimeters), was a favorite with Burns; hence it is often called the Burns stanza.

0 wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,

An’ ev’n devotion!

Fresh as the flower, whose modest worth
He sang, his genius "glinted" forth,
Rose like a star that touching earth,
For so it seems,
Doth glorify its humble birth

-Burns, To a Louse

With matchless beams.

-Wordsworth, At the Grave of Barns

CHAUCERIAN STANZA, OR RHYME ROYAL (seven-line stanza-rhyming ababbec)

Because James I of Scotland wrote a Scottish poem in which he used an iambic pentameter seven-line stanza, that form is often called rhyme royal, it was Chaucer, however, who first used it in English, and for this reason the term "Chaucerian stanza" is greatly to be preferred. The rhyme scheme of the stanza makes it suitable for both lyric and narrative poetry.

The lyfe so short, the craft so long to lerne,
Thassay so hard, so sharp the conqueringe,
The dredful joye, that alwey slit so yerne,
Al this mene I by love, that my felinge
Astonyeth with his wonderful worchinge
So sore y-wis, that whan I on him thinke,
Nat wot I wel wher that I wake or winke.

-Chaucer, The Parliament of Fowls

OTTAVA RIMA (eight-line stanza-rhyming


This stanza, consisting of eight iambic pentameter lines, is adopted from the Italian, from which it takes its name. A peculiarly flexible stanza form, it was admirably suited, for example, to Byron’s many moods as expressed in Beppo and Don Juan,

The coast-I think it was the coast that I
Was just describing-Yes, it was the coast
Lay at this period quiet as the sky,
The sands untumbled, the blue waves untost,
And all was stillness, save the sea-bird’s cry,
And dolphin’s leap, and little billow crost
By some low rock or shelve, that made it fret
Against the boundary it scarcely wet.

-Byron, Don Juan

THE SPENSERIAN STANZA (nine-line stanza

rhyming ababbcbce)

Edmund Spenser wrote his Faerie Queene in stanzas composed of eight iambic pentameter lines followed by a hexameter line, an Alexandrine. It will be observed that the Spenserian stanza is an extension of the Chaucerian by the addition of two lines, one the Alexandrine, but both tied into the original rhyme scheme. The Alexandrine does, however, detach itself to some extent from the rest of the stanza. Often, for example, Spenser will move in the final line from narration to reflection; or he will use the line to summarize a situation.

Much daunted with that dint, her sence was dazd,
Yet kindling rage, her selfe she gathered round,
And all attonce her beastly body raizd
With doubled forces high above the ground:
Tho wrapping up her wrethed sterne arownd,
Lept fierce upon his shield, and her huge traine
All suddenly about his body wound,
That hand or foot to stirre he strove in vaine:

God helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endlesse traine.

-Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Bk. 1, 1, 18

Although the stanza is capable of a form of "climax," it is obvious that it is a difficult medium for narrative since the continuity is broken every nine lines. Apart from Spenser, the stanza has only seldom been used effectively. It is interesting to notice Keats’s use of it in the Eve of St. Agnes and Shelley’s in Adonais.


The variety of stanza forms is almost infinite, employing any number of lines from two to eighteen (Spenser’s Epithalamion) or more. At the base of many of these will be found some form of quatrain with other lines integrated at the poet’s will.

The dusky night rides down the sky,

And ushers in the morn:

The hounds all join in glorious cry,
The huntsman winds his horn,

And a hunting we will go.

-Henry Fielding, A Hunting We Will Go

You brave heroic minds,
Worthy your country’s name,
That honor still pursue,
Go and subdue!
Whilst loitering hinds
Lurk here at home with shame.

-Drayton, To the Virginian Voyage

The glories of out blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armor against fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:

Scepter and crown
Must tumble down,

And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

-James Shirley, Death the Leveler

And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot;
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,

Pass onward from Shalott.

-Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott

If yet I have not all thy love,

Dear, I shall never have it all,

I cannot breathe one other sigh, to move;

Nor can entreat one other tear to fall,

And all my treasure, which should purchase thee,

Sighs, tears, and oaths, and letters I have spent.

Yet no more can be due to me,

Than at the bargain made was meant,

If then thy gift of love were partial,

That some to me, some should to others fall,
Dear, I shall never have thee all.
-Donne, Love’s Infiniteness

Some special notice is due the shaped stanza, or hieroglyphic stanza, that is one whose graphic form on the page portrays or symbolizes the subject of the poern itself. The greatest and most successful practitioner of this kind of experiment was George Herbert.

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,

Decaying more and more,

Till he became
Most poore:

With thee
0 let me rise

As larks, harmoniously,

And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

-Herbert, Easier Wings

In our time, Dylan Thomas gave some of his poems the typographical shape of their ideas.


Although most poetry is written either in rhyming stanzas or in blank verse (see p. 5), a few poems are composed of unrhymed stanzas. Notable in this group is Collins’s Ode to Evening, from which the following stanzas are quoted.

Now air is hushed, save where the weak-eyed bat

With short, shrill shriek, flits by on leathern wing;

Or where the beetle winds

His small but sullen horn,
As oft he rises ‘midst the twilight path,
Against the pilgrim borne in heedless hum:
Now teach me, maid composed,
To breathe some softened strain,

Whose numbers, stealing through thy darkening vale,
May, not unseemly, with its stillness suit,
As, musing slow, I hail
Thy genial loved return!

-Williarn Collins, Ode to Evening

Unrhymed stanzas are prevalent in contemporary poetry.

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

-Wallace Stevens, The Snow Man


The forms of English poetry divide into two groups, those which are fixed according to a rhyme scheme and stanza arrangement, and those which are technically flexible but meet certain conditions of content or treatment of the subject.


The sonnet is a complete poem of fourteen iambic pentameter lines. Its rhyme scheme varies according to the basic arrangement of the content.

The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet

The Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet, named after the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374), consists of two parts -an,octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The octave is really two quatrains, rhyming abba abba; in these eight lines the poet formally presents his thought or emotion. The sestet, rhyming cde cde or cd cd cd, contains an answer, a reflection, a counteremotion, or some other resolution by way of concluding the poem. In the following example, note the importance of the word Then at the beginning of the sestet, which indicates that what follows ig directly dependent on what has previously been stated in the octave.

Much have I traveled in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I beard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific-and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

-Keats, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Wordsworth’s sonnet The World Is Too Much with Us represents an interesting variation in that the first unit of thought, the octave, requires 81/2 of the four teen lines.

The English or Shakespearean sonnet

The English or Shakespearean sonnet is associated with the poet’s name because he was the first to develop the full potentiality of this form. Its particular structure was actually devised by the Earl of Surrey after he and Sir Thomas Wyatt adopted the sonnet form into English literature from the Italian poets. The English sonnet consists of three quatrains, which present three points or aspects of an idea, and a concluding couplet which summarizes or ties together what has been expressed in the quatrains. The rhyme scheme, subject to some variation, is abab cded efef gg. The perfect fusion of form and content which the English sonnet allows is shown in the following example, where the phrase in me in the first line of each quatrain emphasizes the series of closely related thoughts being expressed, and where the pronoun This at the beginning of the couplet points back clearly to what has preceded.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

-Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

The Spenserian sonnet

Spenser rearranged the rhymes of the Petrarchan sonnet and sought to gain continuity through an interlocking pattern similar to that of his famous Spenserian stanza. Indeed the rhyme scheme of the first eight lines of this stanza is employed in twelve lines of the Spenserian sonnet-rhyming abab bcbc cdcd. The concluding lines of the sonnet are a couplet ee. Usually, the effect is close to that of an English sonnet, but the division into quatrains is more arbitrary, less functional.

Fresh spring the herald of loves mighty king,
in whose cote armour richly are displayed
all sorts of flowers the which on earth do spring
in goodly colours gloriously arrayd.
Goe to my love, where she is carelesse layd,
yet in her winters bowre not well awake:
tell her the joyous time will not be staid
unlesse she doe him by the forelock take.
Bid her therefore her selfe soone ready make,
to wayt on love amongst his lovely crew:
where every one that misseth then her make,
shall be by him amearst with penance dew.
Make hast therefore sweet love, whilest it is prime,
for none can call againe the passed time.

-Spenser, Amoretti, 70

The single-statement sonnet

Sometimes poets employ the rhyme scheme of either the Italian or English sonnet, but do not develop the content to fit the form. In the following sonnet, for example, Milton describes his vision without any regard for the natural break in sense between what would ordinarily be the octave and sestet.

Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from death by force though pale and faint.
Mine as whom washed from spot of child-bed taint,
Purification in the old law did save,
And such, as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind.
Her face was veiled, yet to my fancied sight,
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined,
So clear, as in no face with more delight.
But 0, as to embrace me she inclined,
I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night,

-Milton, On His Deceased Wife


From the time of the Middle Ages, when Chaucer, who lived at the court of Edward 111, came under French influences, until the twentieth century, when Ezra Pound aroused enthusiasm for early romance literature, man), of the old French verse forms have been gracefully and effectively imitated. In the last part of the nineteenth century, Lang, Dobson, Henley, and Swinburne made a concerted effort to revive French forms, though not with unqualified artistic success. These forms are particularly adapted to light verse but have lent themselves to serious themes as well. Difficlut to imitate because of their precise rhyme schemes, they have remained a perennial formal challenge to English poets.

The villanelle

The villanelle consists of five three-line stanzas rhyming aba and a concluding stanza of four lines rhyming abaa, Only two rhymes are used, and a delightful sound effect is achieved by repetition. The first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and the fourth stanzas; the third line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth stanzas; and these two lines are repeated together as the final couplet of the concluding quatrain.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires;
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

-William Empson, Missing Dates

The triolet
The triolet, also using only two rhymes, employs eight short lines. Its effect is enhanced by the triple recurrence of the first line, and by the repetition of the second line at the close, The form is characterized by daintiness as well as by liveliness.

Rose kissed me today.
Will she kiss me tomorrow?
Let it be as it may,
Rose kissed me today.
But the pleasure gives way
To a savor of sorrow;
.Rose kissed me today
Will she kiss me tomorrow?

-Dobson, A Kiss

The rondeau

Another interesting form running on two rhymes is the rondeam. it consists usually of fifteen lines, arranged in three stanzas. The last line of the second and third stanzas is a refrain taken from the beginning of the first line. Although in France it appears chiefly as a vehicle of French wit, the rondeau lends itself almost equally well in English to both light and serious use. It is the most popular of the French adaptations.

In after days when grasses high

O’ertop the stone where I shall lie,

Though ill or well the world adjust
My slender claim to honored dust,
I shall not question nor reply.

I shall not see the morning sky;
I shall not hear the night-wind sigh;

I shall be mute, as all men must

In after days!

But yet, now living, fain would I
That some one then should testify,

Saying-"He held his pen in trust
To Art, not serving shame or lust."
Will none?-Then let my memory die
In after days!

-Dobson, Io After Days

The rondel (roundel)

The rondel is a poem of thirteen lines (occasionally fourteen), written in three stanzas and using only two rhymes, as in the three preceding formal patterns. It also employs repetition similar to that in the triolet. Ordinarily the first two lines of the first stanza are repeated as the last two lines of the second and third stanzas; sometimes only the first line is repeated in the last stanza. Note in the following rondel from The Parliament of Fowls, that Chaucer repeats the first two lines of the poem as a refrain in the second stanza, and the entire first stanza as a refrain in the third.

The Ballade

The ballade (not to be confused with the ballad) consists of three stanzas of eight or ten lines each and a concluding envoy (l’envoi, a postscript) of from four to six lines. The entire poem rusn on three or four rhymes, but no rhyme word may be repeated; all stanzas conclude with the same refrain. A common rhyme scheme is that of the first eight lines of the Spenserian —TO BE CONTINUED.