Verse Stanzas

        Some poems' lines run continuously from beginning to end, and they are called "non-stanzaic" to distinguish them from "stanzaic" poems whose lines are divided into groups.  Don't make the mistake of assuming that stanzas necessarily correspond to prose paragraphs, though it's possible and worth noting if each stanza handles a different topic of aspect of the topic.  In rhyming verse, stanzas often are created by rhyme patterns (e.g., a "quatrain" formed by lines rhyming "abab"), but the poem's rhetoric, what it's talking about and how it's saying that, may either work with or against the rhyme scheme in stanza construction.  Look for stanzas which split the poem's handling of a topic in interesting ways, perhaps appearing to end its discussion in one stanza but suddenly reversing logical direction without pause in the next.  When the content works against the rhyme scheme, this sometimes is used to echo the content's description of disorder, overflow of emotion, or other kinds of conflict.

Stanza Types:

Two lines: couplet.  [Don't confuse this with non-stanzaic rhyming couplets in which there is no line break and the syntax runs continuously between couplets.  The most common couplet stanza ends the English or Shakespearean sonnet, which divides its fourteen lines 4/4/4/2.]

Three lines: tercet or terza rima.  [A "tercet" would be a three-line stanza that was part of a larger lyric poem.  Repeated three-line stanzas, or "terza rima," is the stanza form of Dante's Divina Comedia, perhaps the most widely known and influential work of the medieval period.]

Four lines: quatrain.  [The most common quatrain stanzas are the three which are found in the main body of English or Shakespearian sonnets, which divide their fourteen lines 4/4/4/2.  A four-line stanza rhyming abcb in English narrative verse is a "ballad stanza."]

Five lines: cinquain.  [Not a classical stanza form, the cinquain was invented by the American poet, Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914), from the older French term, "quatrain."  This stanza is used in English poems resembling Japanese haiku.]

Six lines: sestet.  [This is the second portion of an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, which divides its fourteen lines 8/6.]

Seven lines: septet.  [An uncommon stanza form in early literature.]

Eight lines: octave.  [If it rhymes abababab and is followed by a sestet, it is the first portion of an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, which divides its fourteen lines 8/6.  If it rhymes ababbcc and either stands alone or is followed by other ababbcc stanzas, it's "rhyme royal," Chaucer's most elaborate stanza--in 1,117 rhyme royal stanzas he told the story of Troilus and Criseyde.]

Spenserian: A rhyme royal stanza to which a ninth line is added in hexameter (6-foot), the stanza in which Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene.

Click here for help with terms for poetic "feet," or syllable combinations, which poets count when determining a poem's meter.   Click here for help with terms to describe meter, the terms for counting poetic "feet."