In poetry, a stanza is a division of four or more lines having a fixed length, meter or rhyming scheme.
Stanzas in poetry are similar to paragraphs in prose. Both stanzas and paragraphs include connected thoughts and are set off by a space. The number of lines varies in different kinds of stanzas but it is uncommon for a stanza to have more than twelve lines. The pattern of a stanza is determined by the number of feet in each line and by its metrical or rhyming scheme.
Stanzas Examples in English Poetry
On the basis of a fixed number of lines and rhyming scheme, traditional English language poems have the following kinds of stanzas:
Let us make ourselves familiar with the above mentioned kinds of stanzas:
It consists of two rhyming lines having the same meter. Consider the following couplet stanza examples:
Alexander Pope wrote his Essay on Criticism in rhyming couplets:
“True wit is nature to advantage dress’d;
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.”
Read the rhyming couplet at the end of Sonnet II by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
“Whether or not we find what we are seeking
is idle, biologically speaking.”
A rhyming pair of lines in iambic pentameter is known as a heroic couplet. Initiated by Chaucer, heroic couplets are commonly used in epics and narrative poetry. Among the well known examples of stanza, we find Edgar Allan Poe’s sonnet To Science:
“Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given”
A tercet comprises three lines following a same rhyming scheme a a a or have a rhyming pattern a b a. Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced tercet in 16th century.
Read the following tercets from Wyatt’s poem Second Satire with a rhyming scheme a b a:
“My mother’s maids, when they did sew and spin,
They sang sometimes a song of the field mouse,
That for because their livelihood was but so thin.
Would needs go seek her townish sister’s house.
Would needs She thought herself endured to much pain:
The stormy blasts her cave so sore did souse…”
Famous Romantic poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson employed tercets in his poem The Eagle with a rhyming scheme a a a:
“He clasps the crag with crooked hands:
Close to the sun it lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, it stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.”
It is a form of stanza popularized by a Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, who called it a Rubai. It has common rhyming schemes a a a a, a a b b, a b a b.
Read the following example from Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
“Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter–and the Bird is on the Wing.”
Thomas Gray employed Quatrain in his poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:
“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”
Quintain also referred to as cinquain is a stanza of five lines which may be rhymed or unrhymed and has a typical stress pattern. Its invention is attributed to Crapsey.
Below is an example of cinquain taken from Crapsey’s November Night:
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
Sestet is a kind of stanza that consists of six lines. It is the second division of Italian or sonnets of Petrarch following an octave or the first division comprising eight lines.
In a sonnet, a sestet marks a change of emotional state of a poet as they tend to be more subjective in the second part of the sonnet.
Read the following lines from Mathew Arnold’s The Better Part:
So answerest thou; but why not rather say:
“Hath man no second life? – Pitch this one high!
Sits there no judge in Heaven, our sin to see? –
More strictly, then, the inward judge obey!
Was Christ a man like us? Ah! Let us try
If we then, too, can be such men as he!”
The poet answers the rude inquirer passionately as soon as the sestet commences.
Function of Stanza
Stanza divides a poem in such a way that does not harm its balance but rather it adds to the beauty to the symmetry of a poem. Moreover, it allows poets to shift their moods and present different subject matters in their poems.