Stanza Forms in English Literature

Stanza Forms in English Literature

Stanza Forms in English Literature : A stanza may be defined as a group of lines of poetry, forming a unit in themselves. Thus the stanza is the unit of organisation in poetry, just as the paragraph is in prose. In many cases the stanzas composing a poem are quite irregular alike in length and structure, as in Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality and Tennyson’s Maud. But as a rule, a poem is built up of units or sections strictly identical in form.

Stanza Forms in English Literature

Regular stanzas are commonly defined by the number of their lines and the arrangement of the rimes which bind these lines together. The stanza-forms of English poetry are so numerous and varied that no complete study of them can be attempted here; but the following may be mentioned as some of the best known examples of stanza-forms in English.

The Chaucerian Stanza or Rhyme Royal

The Chaucerian stanza is so-called because it was first used in England by Chaucer, “the father of English poetry.” Most probably he borrowed it from France. It is also called Rhyme Royal because it was used by King James I of Scotland in the 15th century for his well-known poem King’s Quair.

The Chaucerian Stanza is a stanza of seven Iambic Pentametre lines. In this stanza the first line rhymes with the third, the second with the fourth and fifth, and the last two lines rhyme together, thus forming a couplet. The rhyme-schme is a a b, a b b, c c. The stanza is particularly suited for narrative verse, and Chaucer used it for several stories in The Canterbury Tales. Shakespeare used it for his The Rape of Lucrece, and in he Victorian Age it was used by William Morris for his The Earthly Paradise. 

Here is an example of the Chaucerian Stanza:

Then, childish fear, avaunt! debating, die!
Respect and reason, wait on wrinkled age!
My heart shall never countermand mine eye;
Sad pause and deep regard beseem the stage;
My part is youth, and beats these from the stage;
Desire my pilot is, beauty my prize;
Then who fears sinking where such treasure lies?

The Ottava Rhyma

This stanza-form was first used in England in the early 16th century by Sir Thomas Wyatt. He frequently went to Italy on diplomatic missions, and it was from there that he introduced this stanza – form into England. Like the Chaucerian Stanza it is also well suited for narrative purpose. It has also been used for satiric purposes. Shelley used it for his The Witch of Atlas, Keats for his The Pot of Basil, and Byron for his Don Juan.

Ottava Rhyma is a stanza of eight Iambic Pentametre lines. The first line rhymes with the third and fifth, the second with the fourth and sixth, and the last two lines rhyme together, and thus form a couplet. In other words the stanza consists of six lines rhyming alternately with a couplet at the end. The rhyme scheme of the stanza is a b, a b, a b, c c.

Here is an example of Ottava Rhyma from Byron’s Don Juan:

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,
‘Tis woman’s whole existence; man may range
The court, camp, church, the vessel, and the mart;
Sword, gown, gain, glory, offer in exchange
Pride, fame, ambition, to fill up his heart,
And few there are whom these cannot estrange;
Men have, all these resources, we but one,
To love again, and be again undone.

Spensarian Stanza

The stanza is so-called because it was first used by the poet Spenser for his romantic epic, “The Fairy Queen”. It is a stanza consisting of eight Iambic Pentametre lines and an Alexandrine or a line of twelve syllables at the end. The first line rhymes with the third; the second, fourth, fifth and seventh lines rhyme together, and the sixth line rhymes with the eighth one and the nineth. The rhyme scheme is a b a b, b c b c, c. It is a very difficult stanza to handle, for in it one rhyme is repeated four times, and another three times. This naturally puts a severe strain on the skill and resources of a poet.

He must have full command over language, to find so many words with similar end sounds. Even then the stanza is admirably suited for long narrative and descriptive poems. Spenser used it with great success for his Fairy Queenand ever since poets have frequently used it with more or less success. In the early 18th century, James Thomson used it for his Castle of Indolence. It was used by Byron for his Child Harold, by Keats for The Eve of St. Agnes, by Shelley for The Revolt of Islam and Adonais, and by Tennyson for The Lotos-Eaters.

Here is an example of the Spensarian Stanza from Shelley’s Adonais:

Ah woe is me? Winter is come and gone,
But grief returns with the  revolving year.
The arts and streams renew their joyous tone;
The ants, the bees, the swallows, reappear;
Fresh leaves and flowers deck the dead Season’s bier
The amorous birds now pair in every brake,
And build their mossy homes in field and brere;
And the green lizard and the golden snake,
Like un imprisoned flames, out of their trance awake,

The Terza Rhyma

The Terza Rhyma is an Italian verse-form, and it was first used with great success by the Italian poet Dante for his monumental epic, The Divine Comedy. In England it was used with considerable success by Shelley for his Ode to the West Wind. Byron’s Prophecy of Dante, Browning’s The Statute and the Bust, and William Morris’ The Defence of Guenevere are also written in this stanza.

The Terza Rhyma is simply a group of three lines forming a unit. In this stanza first line rhymes with the third, and the second line rhymes with the first and third of the following tercet (group of three lines). In this way each tercet is linked up with the next, the first with the second, the second with the third, and so on. A tercet may be run on or closed. In a run on tercet the sense overflows or runs on from one tercet to another. On the other hand in the closed variety, each tercet forms a complete sentence. Both these types have been used in England, but the run on variety has been generally favoured.

The rhyme-scheme of any two tercets would be a b a, b c b, and so on for the following tercets.

Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind provides typical examples of Terza Rhyma:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presense the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
with living hues and odours plain and hill.

The Quatrain

A Quatrain is a stanza of four Iambic lines with alternate rhymes i.e. the first line rhymes with the third, and the second with the fourth. However, variations of this rhyme-scheme are frequent. Similarly, the length of the lines also varies. The lines may be Pentametre, Tetrametre, or even shorter. Sometimes, the first and third lines are longer than the second and fourth lines. Most of the ballads in the English language have been written in Quatrains, so it is also referred to as the Ballad-stanza. Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner and Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci are the two poems in this form which readily come to one’s mind.

Here is an example of a Quatrain from The Ancient Mariner:

The sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he !
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.

The Heroic Couplet

The Heroic Couplet consists of two Iambic Pentametre lines rhyming together. It is called ‘Heroic’ because Iambic Pentametre verse rhymed or unrhymed, was first used for epic or heroic poetry. It is an important measure as far as English poetry is concerned. Most of the poetry of the Augustan Age (the age of Dryden and Pope 1660 – 1750) is cast in this measure.

Each line of the heroic couplet consists of five feet or ten syllables, and the second syllable of each foot is accented. The two lines of the couplet rhyme, and the rhyme may be single or double, though Pope, the ablest practitioner of the verse-form, generally uses single rhymes. In the middle there is a pause, technically called the ‘Caesura’. This pause generally falls after the fourth and before the sixth syllable. But variations in the placing of the pause may be skillfully introduced in keeping with the requirements of thought and emotion. Further, there may be variations not only in the placing of the Caesura but also in its depth. Sometimes, this pause is so slight that it seems there is no pause at all.

The chief characteristics of the heroic couplet are well-illustrated by the following one:

Grove nods at grove, each alley has a brother,
And half the platform, just reflects the other.

Each line of the couplet has five feet and the second syllable in each foot is accented. The position of pause is indicated by the comma. The last syllable of ‘brother’ rhymes with the last syllable of ‘other’.

The heroic couplet may be of two kinds – closed or run on. In the closed couplet the sense is competed with each couplet and each thus forms a complete sentence, a unit in itself. The couplet cited above is of a closed variety. In the run-on variety, the sense runs on from one couplet to another till it is completed. In this case, the individual couplet does not form a unit, but the unit is formed by a group of couplets which complete the sense, and this larger unit is called the verse-paragraph.

The Heroic Couplet was first used in England by Chaucer who might have learned it from French sources. He used this measure for may of the stories in the Canterbury Tales. Spenser used it with great skill for his Mother Hubbard’s Tale, Marlowe too used it with great success for his Hero and Leander.

However, it was in the Augustan age that the Heroic Couplet came to its own. At the very beginning of the era poets Waller and Denham showed great skill in its use. “The excellence and dignity of rhyme,” says Dryden, “were never fully known till Mr. Waller taught it: he first made writing easily an art; first showed us to conclude the sense, most commonly in a distich.” Pope pays a tribute to both:

And praise the vigor of a line,
Where Denham’s strength and Waller’s sweetness join;

However, it was with Pope and Dryden that the couplet entered on its most glorious phase. Both of them used it as the instrument of their satire. It has been said that each of their couplets stings and the sting is located in the tail. Dryden used it for his Absalom and Achitophel and Macflecknoe, and Pope for his Rape of the Lock and Dunciad. He also used it for such narrative and philosophical works as Essay on Man and Essay on Criticism. Their use of the couplet is characterised by ease, vigour, strength and sweetness. Dryden’s use of it is more flexible, and variety is introduced in various ways. Often he uses run-on Couplets. Pope’s use of it is rigid. His couplets are generally of the closed variety. In his hands, the couplet reached perfection; no couplet of his can be improved upon.

Pope was widely imitated throughout the 18th century. But his followers did not have his genius and his ability and in their hands the couplet degenerated into a mere mechanical art and became monotonous. With the coming of the romantics there was a re-action against it. The romantics turned away from the couplet to other measures. However, the use of the couplet was not entirely discarded. Byron, Shelley and Keats all used it along with other verse-forms. Moreover, they used the run-on (or enjambed) variety of the couplet and not the closed one as was the case with Dryden and Pope. Keats’ Lamia is written in run-on couplets. A generation later, in the Victorian era, the couplet was used first by Browning and then by William Morris and Swinburne. The couplet continues to be used, specially for narrative poetry, but it is no longer the exclusive verse-form of English poetry, as it was in the Augustan Age. It has been considerably loosened, and hardly resembles the couplets of Pope and Dryden.

Octosyllabic Couplet

In the end, mention may also be made of the Octosyllabic Couplet. It differs from the Heroic Couplet, in as much as each line in it consists of eight syllables or four feet and not of ten syllables or five feet. It is a difficult measure to handle, and its use in long narrative poems tends to grow mechanical and tiresome. However, in the Restoration era (1660 – 1700) Samuel Butler used it with great success for his satirical poem Sir Hudibras. In the romantic age, Coleridge used it successfully for his Christabel.


The word satire is derived from the Latin “Satura Lanks”. Long defines it as, ‘a literary work which searches out the faults of men or institutions in order to hold them upto ridicule.” According to Dryden, “the true end of satire is the amendment of vices by correction”. But the best definition seems to be that given by Richard Garnett, who defines satire as,

“The expression in adequate terms of the sense of amusement or disgust excited by the ridiculous or unseemly, provided that humour is a distinctly recognised element, and that the utterance is invested with literary form. Without humour satire is invective; without literary form, it is mere clownish jeering.”

Thus the main characteristics of satire are:

(a) Literary form of expression.

(b) Disgust at the ridiculous, the ugly, and the foolish.

(c)  Humour.

(d) A sincere desire to correct or reform.

A good satirist is a critic whose aim is to reform or correct human weaknesses, vices or follies, and the weapon which he uses for his purposes is that of laughter. His aim is to laugh folly out of contenance, or to scorn it into shame. He rarely attacks directly, but clothes his attack in allegory, fable, mock-heroic, parody of burlesque. Concentration and brevity intensify the effect, so verse is a better medium for satire than prose, though there have been good satirists in prose also. The example of Swift readily comes to mind as one of the best English satirists using the medium of prose.

Satire may be of two kinds (a) Personal, and (b) Impersonal. Personal satire is aimed at some individual. It, too, can be effective in the hands of a master, but generally it has a tendency to degenerate into vituperation and personal invectives. It is also ephemeral and short-lived. In impersonal or genuine satire, the satirist passes from the individual to the type, from the ephemeral to the eternal and universal. Types are among the finest achievements of impersonal satire. It has a wider sweep, individuals are used as examples of the vices and follies that infect the age.

Satire is as old as literature itself; but the Romans were the first great satirists. Persius, Horace and Juvenal were the great Roman satirists who laid down the lines for the future development of this channel of literature. The satire of Horace laughs at mankind; that of Persius indignantly lashes at mankind; while Juvenal hates and despises mankind. The satire of Pope is generally Horatian in tone, though occasionally it becomes bitter, caustic and venomous like that of Juvenal.

Church and woman were the usual targets of satire in the middle ages. Langland lashes at the corrupt clergy of the times, and Chaucer, too, has his fling at them and at women. In the Elizabethan era the Puritan, the affected traveller and women were the common object of satire. The Age of Milton witnessed the rise of political satire. Samuel Bulter satirises the false chivalry of the age in Hudibras, which is the best piece in this genre before Dryden. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, we find Dryden, Swift and Pope satirising their personal and political enemies, though when at their best, they rise from the personal to the impersonal. Politics and literary rivalry are all transformed by them into genuine satire and we get a general view of the follies and vices of the period.

Swift’s best satire is Gulliver’s Travels which is, on its face, a book of travels to strange lands of pygmies, giants, and horses. Swift’s purpose was to expose the vices and follies of mankind by ridiculing them. Man is reduced to the shortness of the Lilliputians or magnified into the gross Brobdingnagians, or contrasted with the equine virtues of the Houyhnhnms. The effectiveness of such a satire depends on the invention with which the irony makes evident the likeness between the real world and the imaginary. So successful was Swift’s invention that ever since the book was published, children have read the voyages to Lilliput and Brobdingang as fairy stories, without worrying about the satire. So effective is the irony that Gulliver’s Travels remains one of the most appaling exposures of human weakness.

Among the novelists, Fielding and Smolett rank very high as satirists. Fielding’s novels present a picture of contemporary society, and its many follies, foibles, weaknesses and vices are expressed and ridiculed. His aim was always reformative and it was after his Amelia that many reforms in the administration of jails and the administration of justice could be pulled through. Tobias Smollet satirises mankind in general, and again and again in his novels man is reduced to the level of insects.

Satire in the 19th century

Satire in the 19th century: In the 18th century, satire both in verse and prose reached its zenith. But in the 19th century also we find a number of vigorous satirists. Among the romantics, Lord Gordon Byron excelled in satire. He began as a satirist and ended as a satirist. The major poetic production of his early period was English bards and Scotch Reviewers and the last work Don Juan was an epic satire on society. In these two satires Byron, to quote Oliver Elton, “is a young tiger-cub lashing out with sharp and clumsy claws’ In 1822, Byron came out with another vigours satire. The Vision of Judgment. The satire is directed against George III and is a repudiation of the high praise lavished on him by Southey. The king is represented as base and mean, for he creeps into heaven like a sneaking coward.

Don Juan is an epic satire, and is undoubtedly Byron’s best work. Its panoramic survey of human society of Europe, with all the foibles and weaknesses of social institutions, is truly staggering in its satirical wit. Charges of insincerity and hypocrisy are brought against Byron and his attack on virtue has called upon him the wrath of the moralists. But Byron defended himself against these charges in the following words:

“I was willing to plead guilty of having sometimes represented vice under alluring colours but it was so generally in the world and, therefore, it was necessary to point it so.”

Among the Victorians, Dickens and Thackeray are two vigorous satirists who survey the society of their times and expose and ridicule its many weaknesses, its hypocrisy, its materialism, its greed, social climbing, snobbery, etc. Dickens’ novels are novels of social reform and he uses the weapon of satire to bring about reform in a number of social institutions – schools, prison administration, and administration of justice, etc. His satire is mild and gentle, pure humour being more characteristic of him.

Carlyle and Ruskin were also fired with the Zeal of social reform, and we find them attacking vigorously a number of social institutions of the day. They were clear-headed thinkers fully alive to the prevalent social evils, and they use the weapon of irony to effect their purpose. However, they can also be fierce and direct in their denunciation of the existing social system. Matthew Arnold, too, was a bitter critic of the society of his day, and philistinism of the age, the vulgarisation of cultural values, comes frequently within his lash.

Satire in the Modern Age

Satire in the Modern Age: Satire continue unabatted in the 20th century. It is an age of interrogation, and the cherished ideals and beliefs, and cherished social institutions, are subjected to severe scrutiny. George Bernard Shaw is a vigorous satirist who in his plays holds up to the test of reason the most valued ideals and institutions. Nothing escapes his searching eye; every folly, weakness or vice comes within the lash of his satire. Samuel Butler is another great satirist who in his The Way of All Flash and Erewhon has satirically exposed and ridiculed the shortcomings of the times.

Estimating his greatness as a satirist of the later nineteenth century; but not in the first rank of satirist Hugh Walker writes “Butler stands clearly at the head of the satire of the later nineteenth century; but not in the first rank of satirists, and still less in the first rank of literature. Swift, with whom his affinities are most obvious, is far superior in breadth of range, in force of thought, and in keenness of wit. On the other hand, Butler is much more humane: but this unfortunately is an advantage which diminished with time. The Way of All Flesh is far less pleasant and humane than Erewhon.” Mention may also be made of Aldous Huxley who, in his successive novels, has ridiculed contemporary science and the tall claims that are made on its behalf.

Satire may change its form, it may be more vigorous in some ages than in others, but it will continue as long as mankind continues to be imperfect.

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