Poetry Guide: Terza rima
Terza rima is a three-line stanza using chain rhyme in the pattern a-b-a, b-c-b, c-d-c, d-e-d. There is no limit to the number of lines, but poems or sections of poems written in terza rima end with either a single line or couplet repeating the rhyme of the middle line of the final tercet. The two possible endings for the example above are d-e-d, e or d-e-d, e-e. There is no set rhythm for terza rima, but in English, iambic pentameters are generally preferred.
The first known use of terza rima is in Dante's Divina Commedia. In creating the form, Dante may have been influenced by the sirventes, a lyric form used by the Provencal troubadours. The three-line pattern may have been intended to suggest the Holy Trinity. After Dante, other Italian poets, including Petrarch and Boccaccio, used the form.
The first English poet to write in terza rima was Geoffrey Chaucer, who used it for his Complaint to His Lady. Although a difficult form to use in English because of the relative paucity of rhyme words available in what is, in comparison with Italian, not an inflected language, terza rima has been used by Milton, Byron (in his Prophecy of Dante) and Shelley (in his Ode to the West Wind and The Triumph of Life). A number of 20th century poets also employed the form. These include Archibald MacLeish, W. H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, and T. S. Eliot.
Not surprisingly, the form has also been used in translations of the Divina Commedia. Perhaps the most notable examples are Robert Pinsky's version of the Inferno and Laurence Binyon's version of the entire work.
Acquainted With the Night by Robert Frost
- I have been one acquainted with the night. (a)
- I have walked out in rain—and back in rain. (b)
- I have outwalked the furthest city light. (a)
- I have looked down the saddest city lane. (b)
- I have passed by the watchman on his beat (c)
- And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain. (b)
- I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet (c)
- When far away an interrupted cry (d)
- Came over houses from another street, (c)
- But not to call me back or say good-by; (d)
- And further still at an unearthly height (e)
- One luminary clock against the sky (d)
- Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right. (e)
- I have been one acquainted with the night. (e)
The opening lines of the Divina Commedia:
- Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
- mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
- ché la diritta via era smarrita.
- Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
- esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
- che nel pensier rinova la paura!
- Tant'è amara che poco è più morte;
- ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
- dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
- Io non so ben ridir com'i' v'intrai,
- tant'era pien di sonno a quel punto
- che la verace via abbandonai.
Two tercets from Chaucer's Complaint to his Lady:
- Hir name is Bountee set in womanhede
- Sadness in youthe and Beautee prydelees
- And Plesaunce under governaunce and drede;
- Hir surname is eek Faire Rewthelees
- The Wyse, yknit unto Good Aventure,
- That, for I love hir, she sleeth me giltelees.
A section from Shelley's Ode to the West Wind with a couplet ending:
- O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
- Thou, from whose unseen presence 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 wintery 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:
- Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
- Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!