Main PageProsody Guide

Verse Forms
We shall divide verse forms into two groups; the first one we shall treat, closed forms, includes those that have a fixed number of stanzas and lines, or one that varies in a very narrow range. Some of these forms, as the sonnet, were fashionable once and a few, as the haiku, still are but, given the general difficulty in using them, and the general incompetence of modern poets, most of these schemes are thoroughly obsolete (and that is exactly why we shall treat them in full detail).

Absolutely the most common and abused form of all, the sonnet has been plaguing Italian poetry since the 13th century, and has rapidly invaded, with little variations, all Europe. The sonnet uniquely fits corny themes, as its 14 lines allow the writer to be bombastic, but fall just short of letting him realise he's making a fool of himself. In spite of that, the form has been so popular that thousands of good sonnets exist, and several great ones as well. None of them, of course, deals with love.
We owe to the Baroque age the discovery that sonnets could be employed for something kinder than sticking stars in the eyes of the poet's mistress; Baroque poets thought them more fit for describing whipped beauties, flies drowning in an inkwell, and most of all clockworks; and though clocks still have some place in symbolism, and decadentism, Baudelaire and his mates found the form to apply more to chasms, storms, albatrosses, statues and corpses. This is where the best sonnets lurk: examples shall be given later on.
Technically speaking, all sonnets are made of 14 verses; many find it pleasant to split them in two quatrains and two tercets. The matrix on which they are formed is the Petrarchan sonnet called so (but in English only) because it was invented 50 years before Petrarca's birth, and in consideration of the fact that this quite boring Great used it without introducing anything new in its development.
The rhymes for the first eight verses, with the usual conventions, may be either ABAB ABAB or ABBA ABBA, followed by any permutation of six verses (e.g. CDE EDC or CDC CDC), with the only constraint that each of them rhymes with at least one other one. The shortest possible example, 'Sur la femme' by Charles Cros is here provided:





The rime scheme here is the quite usual ABBA ABBA CDC DEE.
Italian sonnets are invariably written in endecasillabi, and several Spanish ones are as well; French sonnets may follow the same rules concerning rhymes, or the English ones (see below), but are commonly written in alexandrines (as in the Mallarmé example in chapter 1). Of course, as Cros shows with his monosyllables, just any verse can be employed as well. This is generally true for all open and closed forms, with few exceptions concentrated mostly in Italian.
Petrarchan sonnets have been written in English: the most famous ones are by Donne and Milton, of whom you might want to read 'How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth', but given the difficulty of finding that many rhymes in such a language (or, if you want, due to the fact poets in English hate to toil too much), they soon transformed it to something in which the rhyme-set of the two opening quatrains are different, and the two tercets end in a couplet.
Thus the English sonnet has typically a ABAB CDCD EFE FDD rhyme scheme, just as in Shakespeare's sonnet CXXXVII ('Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes')

A compromise between the Italian and English form has been attempted by Spenser, who in his 'Amoretti' tries on an ABAB BCBC CDC DEE rime scheme with some success but almost no followers at all.

'Quatorzain' is a name collectively given to anamorphic or abortive sonnets some of which, as Verlaine's 'Nevermore', are truly excellent. Their common characteristic is having 14 lines and something else in common with a sonnet, typically the fact of being split in two terceets and two quatrains. This form includes a pinnacle of English literature, Shelley's 'Ozymandias', which sounds like a weird, customised patchwork of the English and Italian forms.

The limerick is an absolutely British and systematically humorous verse form. There is no serious limerick known, and few decent ones as well. A limerick is formed of five verses rhymed AABBA; strictly speaking, the A-rimed lines should be made of three amphibrachs each, and the B-rimed lines of two anapaests each. Often all the lines are masculine, though, and therefore the ending amphibrachs are lopped to iambs; this, though, greatly spoils the frisky rhythm of this verse.
Traditionally, the first line of a limerick ends with the name of a person or town.
An interesting selection of proper (if you overlook the faulty rhymes) limericks was published in a 1924 Nantucket newspaper, and they are linked here for the masochistic reader.
Limericks are a relatively modern form, and exist, in their strictest version, in English only; however, they have been known to appear in Italian, in a slightly modified version.

The villanelle was, in mediaeval times, a popular form in France, and as such it has, until the last centuries, been shunned by classic poets of that country. It has become instead quite popular in England since Elizabeth's time, and it still is, featuring pieces from W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas, for example. Other than in French and English, the current version of this quite abstruse verse form has only sporadically been applied, and even so it's a recent phenomenon; it is interesting to notice that until Jean Passerat (late 16th century) wrote his bit, it was simply an open form with two rhymes and repeated lines, and therefore no different from the virelai, of which the villanelle still is a proper subtype.
The villanelle is a true poet's nightmare: it is formed of five tercets followed by a quatrain, and it is based on two rhymes only, according to the scheme


where the numbers indicate that instead of creating a new line, the one of that number must be inserted again in that place. The overall effect of a villanelle is thus a little obsessive, as two of its 19 verses are repeated four times each; this explanation may not seem to be exceedingly clear, but the perversion of the form is perfectly apparent in these three examples, one English ('Theocritus' by Wilde), one French (the 'model' one by Jean Passerat) and one Spanish ('Llevarte quiero dentro de mi piel' by C. G. Belli).
Villanelles don't seem to fit a single genre, and have been used for any kind of poems, mostly bad ones.

The haiku is a very common classic Japanese form that has recently been met with great popularity in the Western World, on account of the fact that any idiot can write a 17-syllables poem without excessive problems. That of course doesn't make a good haiku, a thing actually unknown to European languages.
Technically speaking, a haiku is a poem of three lines, the second of which is made of 7 syllables (actual, not metrical), and the other two of 5 syllables. They must contain a 'season word' (such as 'cherry blossom' for Springtime or 'still pond' for Summer) and a 'cutting word' (such as 'fall', 'dive'), and forbid similes and other such conceptual rhetoric, but are systematically laden, at least in their original language, with alliteration, assonance and word play. A rough example could be this one:

Hawks on frosty boughs
rhymesters incompetently
write haikus under.

Worthy haikus deal with season themes and exist only (the rumour has) in Japanese, which neither of the present authors reads; in case the Reader is able to do so, we offer him this classic by Basho (romanised in the standard way):

Tabi ni yande
yume wa kareno o

This form has been used in Japanese, English and French at least.

This name covers a heterogeneous group of rhymed poems of four verses of the same type. Generally, they all carry the same rhyme, but they may also follow (in order of rarity) ABAB, AABB or ABBA patterns; an excellent example of this form is the piece by Villon shown in the first chapter; an English one is Coleridge's 'On Donne's poetry'. This metre doesn't seem to particularly fit a specific mood but, due to its brevity, it hardly adapts to lyricism.
Quatrains are extremely common in French, from the earliest middle-ages, fairly often used in English, unusual in Italian, rhapsodic in Spanish and extremely rare in Provençal.

This is an ambiguous term, covering two separate forms, one decent, classic, French and mediaeval, the other newfangled and English.
The first form is based on two rhyming groups, arranged at will in five verses of the same type. It has been resumed and largely used by Apollinaire in his 'Bestiaire', to which belongs this piece entitled 'Le serpent' (the snake):

Tu t'acharnes sur la beauté.
Et quelles femmes ont été
Victimes de ta cruauté!
Ève, Euridice, Cléopâtre;
J'en connais encor trois ou quatre.

This type of cinquain is very close to the quatrain, and is almost exclusively a French form, doomed to stay so until a new generation of poets, enlightened by this guide, will realise that adding a line to a quatrain is somehow possible also in English. The other form of cinquain is a poem of five unrhymed lines, the first of which has 2 syllables, the second 4, the third 6, the fourth 8, and the last again 2, as in:

My friend,
there's no saying
which sort of children games,
or choices of line breaks is verse

Americans seem to love this form, but it is sometimes used in English as well, with equally horrid results.

The sextain is one of the most difficult verse forms ever devised; the first one, 'Lo ferm voler qu'el cor m'intra' ('the firm will that entered my heart') was written by the Provençal troubadour Arnaut Daniel, in the middle of the XII century. Later Dante, who held him in great esteem wrote one as well ('Al poco giorno e al gran cerchio d'ombra') and Petrarca, who in turn longed to imitate Dante, wrote many of them, which no mortal up to today has yet managed to read in a row without falling asleep long ere the end is in sight.
Due to this unfortunate fact, the sextain is generally considered, in English-speaking countries, to have originated in Italy, and it has become common, among those wishing to display a sophisticated international taste, to call it by its Italian name, 'sestina'.
Technically speaking, a sextain is made of six stanzas of six verses each, followed by an envoi of three verses; each line belongs to one of six groups of identity rhymes according to the scheme:


It is also considered quite elegant to insert one word of each the B, D and F identity-rhyme groups inside the three verses of the envoi, but that is not systematically done, and actually several modern pieces don't even have an envoi.
Since the renaissance sextains have been spotted, though not too often, in English , while they are exceedingly rare in French; the most common usage of this metre is for poems dealing with love obsession, but even this is not systematically the case. The best English sextain the Present Author can think of is 'Altaforte' by Ezra Pound; a fairly famous Petrarchan example is 'Giovene donna sotto un verde lauro', while a French one (perhaps the first ever written) is P. de Tyard's 'Le plus ardant de tous les Elemens', a Spanish one Carlos German Belli's 'Sextina de Kid y Lulu'.
This form is used in a plethora of other languages, including Catalan, Hungarian and Portuguese.

The rondel, often confused with the triolet, is a French form of the XV century, later taken up by the Parnasse poets, and mainly by the usual Banville, who wrote a whole collection in this style and several scattered pieces as well. Rondels don't seem to exist in any other language, which is a shame; a true mediaeval example, written by Charles d'Orleans himself is this:

Le temps a laissé son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluie,
Et s'est vêtu de broderie,
De soleil luisant clair et beau.

Il n'y a bête ni oiseau
Qu'en son jargon ne chante ou crie.
Le temps a laissé son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluie.

Rivière, fontaine et ruisseau
Portent en livrée jolie
Gouttes d'argent d'orfèvrerie.
Chacun s'habille de nouveau,
Le temps a laissé son manteau

As is quite apparent, although slight variations can be found, the rondel is a fairly homogeneous form, made of 13 lines divided in three stanzas and using only two rhymes, grouped according to the scheme (keeping the same conventions we have stated for the villanelle):


Rondels have been applied to virtually anything, but most of the time they are used for descriptive pieces.

One of the most important French metres, the rondeau originated in the Middle Ages from some popular kind of sung piece, as did the homonymous instrumental classical musical form. Almost every French poet of the XV-XVI century has written rondeaux galore, and in more modern times the usual Banville has written a cartload of them too.
The rondeau has 15 lines, but only 13 verses, belonging to two rhyming groups; the difference is explained as follows: the opening verse is divided into two hemistichs, of arbitrary length, the first of which is inserted again after the 8th and 13th verse (if the Reader prefers, after the 8th and 14th line). There are no conditions set on the nature of this hemistich: it need not rhyme, and can be one word long, or take up almost all of the first verse; indicating it with h (lowercased because it is not a proper verse), the (fixed) rhyme scheme of a rondeau is:


in case these ravings don't appear to be clear, and they are likely not to, the Reader might wish to compare them to this Renaissance example by Clément Marot.
Proper rondeaux are mainly French, but have been used in this language for virtually any kind of poetry, from songs celebrating the seasons to elegies and dirges, to humorous pieces.
During the Victorian wake of proper formal poetry, however, several English rondeaux were written, such as W.E.Henley's 'What is to come'

What is to come we know not. But we know
That what has been was good--was good to show,
Better to hide, and best of all to bear.
We are the masters of the days that were;
We have lived, we have loved, we have suffered...even so.

Shall we not take the ebb who had the flow?
Life was our friend? Now, if it be our foe--
Dear, though it spoil and break us! --need we care
What is to come?

Let the great winds their worst and wildest blow,
Or the gold weather round us mellow slow;
We have fulfilled ourselves, and we can dare
And we can conquer, though we may not share
In the rich quiet of the afterglow
What is to come.

Rondeaux, however rare, already existed in English also before queen Victoria's reign (Thomas Wyatt wrote several) and didn't fade into nothingness after her death: perhaps the most celebrated poem ever written by a Canadian, McCrae's 'In Flanders Fields' is evidence of this.

The roundel was invented by C.A.Swinburne to summarise rondel, rondeau and perhaps triolet in one form suited to English; he wrote a whole book to better illustrate the concept, and had quite a following, including Ernest Dowson, whose 'Beyond' is an example, in his own country and age.
A roundel is built according to an

scheme (with the same conventions as above), therefore systematically avoiding couplets in order to achieve a more 'lyrical' effect; Swinburne's most famous one, and the only one you are likely to ever find in print is his programmatic one "The roundel":

A roundel is wrought as a ring or a starbright sphere,
With craft of delight and with cunning of sound unsought,
That the heart of the hearer may smile if to pleasure his ear
A roundel is wrought.

Its jewel of music is carven of all or of aught –
Love, laughter, or mourning–remembrance of rapture or fear–
That fancy may fashion to hang in the ear of thought.
As a bird's quick song runs round, and the hearts in us hear
Pause answer to pause, and again the same strain caught,
So moves the device whence, round as a pearl or tear,
A roundel is wrought.

Rondeau redoublé
For once, it is worth breaking the implicit rule of illustrating only English-related poetry to introduce this seriously minor, somewhat twisted and exclusively French metre, of which no more than a handful of examples (two of which, 'A Sylvie' and 'A Iris', of course, by Banville) exist, to show how twisted prosody can be, even in Europe.
Technically speaking a rondeau redoublé is made of six quatrains ended by a hemistich (of exactly the same type as the one in the rondeau form, and built on the first verse as well). The 24 verses, 4 of which are found twice (in the first stanza and as endings of stanzas 2-5) all belong to only two rhyme groups, one of which must be feminine and the other masculine; according to the usual conventions of this chapter, the tricky scheme of this form is:


The most famous ancient rondeau redoublé is this didactic one by Vincent Voiture:

Si l'on en trouve, on n'en trouvera guère
De ces rondeaux qu'on nomme redoublés,
Beaux et tournés d'une fine manière
Si qu'à bon droit la plupart sont sifflés.

A six quatrains les vers en sont réglés
Sur double rime et d'espèce contraire.
Rimes où soient douze mots accouplés,
Si l'on en trouve, on n'en trouvera guère.

Doit au surplus fermer son quaternaire
Chacun de vous au premier assemblés,
Pour varier toujours l'intercalaire
De ces rondeaux qu'on nomme redoublés.

Puis par un tour, tour des plus endiablés,
Vont à pieds joints, sautant la pièce entière
Les premiers mots qu'au bout vous enfilez,
Beaux et tournés d'une fine manière.

Dame Paresse, à parler sans mystère,
Tient nos rimeurs de sa cape affublés:
Tout ce qui gêne est sûr de leur déplaire,
Si qu'à bon droit la plupart sont sifflés.

Ceux qui de gloire étaient jadis comblés,
Par beau labeur en gagnaient le salaire:
Ces forts esprits, aujourd'hui cherchez-les;
Signe de croix on aura lieu de faire
Si l'on en trouve.

This form is too rare to state anything general on its usage; some light might come from the fact that it is actually one of the French versions of a more widespread form, the glose, described in detail in the next chapter.

Again a mostly French metre, again one based on two rhyming groups and a verse repeated thrice, the triolet, a form of eight lines disposed according to a


scheme, is the ancient French equivalent of a limerick, used mainly for satirical purposes, as shown in this quite typical example by Villon:

Jenin l'Avenu,
Va-t-en aux estuves;
Et toy la venu,
Jenin l'Avenu,

Si te lave nu
Et tu baigne es cuves.
Jenin l'Avenu,
Va-t-en aux estuves.

but it is not necessarily so, as shown by this somewhat intimate piece by Jean Froissart. Banville and other Parnasse poets wrote poems in this form galore; the Reader that has suddenly fallen in love with it can find all he needs in the former's 'Odes funambulesques'.
English triolets were written, not surprisingly, by Henley and Dobson: here is 'A kiss', by the latter:

Rose kissed me to-day.
Will she kiss me tomorrow?
Let it be as it may,
Rose kissed me today.

But the pleasure gives way
To a savour of sorrow;
Rose kissed me to-day,
Will she kiss me tomorrow?

As a final note, triolets, rondels and similar pieces are often rudely grouped under the name of rondeaux (or, sometimes, of 'roundelay') ; this is due mainly to the fact that there are several pieces that resemble them without exactly fitting in any of the schemes above, as this magnificent one by Deschamps. Generally speaking, the idea of a short poem using only two rhymes and repeating a verse or hemistich has been exploited in many different ways, and it would take a whole book to describe them all. Let the reader forgive us, therefore, if we limit ourselves to the most interesting and do not linger, for example, on the rondelet.
To add further confusion to the matter, some English-speaking authors tend to call 'rondeau' any friskily-flowing poem, such as this one by Leigh Hunt. But the times of deception is over: the Reader, now shielded by the Present Guide, will never be fooled anymore by these wiles.

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