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The rhyme royal stanza consists of seven lines, usually in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b-c-c. In practice, the stanza can be constructed either as a tercet and two couplets (a-b-a, b-b, c-c) or a quatrain and a tercet (a-b-a-b, b-c-c). This allows for a good deal of variety, especially when the form is used for longer narrative poems.
Chaucer first used the rhyme royal stanza in his long poems Troilus and Criseyde and Parlement of Foules. He also used it for four of the Canterbury Tales and in a number of shorter lyrics. It is believed that he adapted the form from a French ballade stanza.
James I of Scotland used rhyme royal for his Chaucerian poem The Kingis Quair, and it is believed that the name of the stanza derives from this royal use. John Lydgate used the stanza for many of his occasional and love poems, Robert Henryson in his translation of Aesop's Fables and in The Testament of Cresseid, Thomas Wyatt in his poem They flee from me that sometime did me seek, Thomas Sackville in the Induction to The Mirror for Magistrates, and Shakespeare in The Rape of Lucrece, to give a few examples. Along with the couplet, it was the standard narrative metre in the late Middle Ages. Edmund Spenser derived his Spenserian stanza partly by adapting rhyme royal. Like all stanzaic forms, it fell out of fashion during the Restoration, and has never really recovered anything like its original status. Probably the most important 20th century poems in the form are W. H. Auden's Letter to Lord Byron and The Shield of Achilles.
Here is the opening stanza of Troilus and Criseyde:
and this is the first stanza of the Wyatt poem:
The ballade royal is a poem form that uses rhyme royal stanzas within the discipline of a ballade. Ballade royal may use iambic pentameters or iambic tetrameters. Typically, there are four stanzas with the final stanza taking the place of the more usual envoi. The final line of each stanza is a repeated refrain. Chaucer used this form in his Ballade of Good Counsel.