Definition of Quatrain

In poetry, a quatrain features four lines of verse. A quatrain is a foundational poetic device because it is compatible with different rhythmic patterns and rhyme schemes. As a literary device, a quatrain in poetry is a series of four poetic lines that make up a verse of a poem known as a stanza, which can function as a poem on its own or as an individual stanza within a larger poem.

There are two primary “rules” that traditionally constitute this poetic form:

  • A quatrain must have four lines. If a poetic stanza has more or fewer than four poetic lines, it is not a quatrain.
  • A quatrain must feature a rhyme scheme in some way. There are 15 possible rhyme schemes for this form, and slant rhyme (words that have similar but not identical sounds) is considered acceptable.

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem First Fig is an example of this poetic form. It is made up of a quatrain which functions as a stanza, and this stanza is the full poem.

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!
As First Fig demonstrates, the quatrain poetic form is long enough to provide the reader with a meaningful, short narrative. In this case, the four-line stanza allows the poet to convey full thoughts and ideas in one verse. In contrast to a couplet in which the brevity of two poetic lines limits the use of words, a quatrain provides a poet a greater interval in which to more fully express a thought or idea.

Examples of Quatrain in Common Nursery Rhymes

Many nursery rhymes feature quatrains as a means of creating short narratives for children with rhyme patterns. Nursery rhymes are helpful with language acquisition by repeating words and sounds as well as enhancing memory and comprehension with narrative verses, often in four lines. Here are some examples of quatrain in common nursery rhymes:

Mary Had a Little Lamb

Mary had a little lamb

Whose fleece was white as snow;

And everywhere that Mary went,

The Lamb was sure to go.

Pease Porridge Hot

Pease porridge hot,

Pease porridge cold,

Pease porridge in the pot

Nine days old.

Hickety Pickety, My Black Hen

Hickety pickety, my black hen,
She lays eggs for gentlemen;
Sometimes nine, sometimes ten,
Hickety pickety, my black hen.

Roses Are Red

Roses are red

Violets are blue

Sugar is sweet

And so are you.

Famous Examples of Shakespearean Sonnets Featuring Quatrains

Quatrains are an important component of Shakespearean, or English, sonnets. Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets and those of other English poets are written in the form of three quatrains and a concluding couplet (14 total poetic lines). Here are some famous examples of Shakespearean sonnets that feature quatrains, identified by the sonnet’s first line and number:

  • Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18)
  • Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Sonnet 116)
  • To me, fair friend, you never can be old (Sonnet 104)
  • My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun (Sonnet 130)
  • So are you to my thoughts as food to life (Sonnet 75)
  • As an unperfect actor on the stage (Sonnet 23)
  • When to the sessions of sweet silent thought (Sonnet 30)
  • When in the chronicle of wasted time (Sonnet 106)
  • Not marble nor the guilded monuments (Sonnet 55)
  • ‘Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed (Sonnet 121)

Writing Quatrain

Poets and writers have been utilizing quatrain since Ancient Greece. In the eleventh century, the poet Omár Khayyám created a book of connected quatrain verses known as the “Rubáiyát” which translates as quatrains in Arabic. In the nineteenth century, the “Rubáiyát” was translated by an English poet named Edward Fitzgerald, which brought about a resurgence of this four-line stanza.

The possibility of expression with quatrain allows writers and poets to convey meaningful narrative to readers through artistic and elevated language. Here are some elements to consider when writing quatrain:

Rhyme Scheme in Quatrain

A quatrain allows for a total of fifteen possible rhyme scheme combinations. Depending on the poet’s choice, a single rhyme scheme can be used for quatrain within a poem, or quatrains can be combined into different stanzas and rhyme patterns within a poem for variation.

Versatility of Quatrain

A quatrain is versatile literary device. The poetic lines of a quatrain can be different lengths and feature a variety of rhyme schemes. In addition, these four poetic lines can vary in rhythm and meter. A quatrain can be a stand-alone poem or part of several poetic forms such as sonnets, ballads, etc. Some modern poets have adapted quatrain to include free verse, creating stanzas that do not feature a set rhyme scheme or rhythm pattern.

Examples of Quatrain in Literature

A quatrain, as a unit of four lines of verse, is the most common form of stanza in English poetry. Though many different rhyme schemes are possible in quatrains, the most often used is crossed rhyme, in which the first line rhymes with the third and the second with the fourth (rhyme pattern abab). Quatrains are versatile as a poetic device, and provide the foundation for many significant poetic works. Here are some examples of quatrain in literature:

Example 1: Because I could not stop for Death (Emily Dickinson)

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.
Dickinson embraced and utilized quatrains in most of her poetic work. This allowed her poetry to create an intimate relationship between the poet and reader in terms of forming narratives expressed with artistic language. This stanza begins one of Dickinson’s most famous poetic works. The rhyme scheme of the quatrain is ABCB, and the four lines vary slightly in their pattern of rhythm.
This brief, four-line stanza is a small narrative unto itself, though it is part of a larger poem. The poet creates a scene for the reader of Death, personified, stopping to gather the poet into a carriage. Rather than a sense of sadness or loss, this verse establishes a polite and congenial tone. In addition, the inclusion of “Immortality” in the fourth poetic line creates a sense of ambiguity for the reader as to whether Death has taken Immortality as well as the poet, or whether the poet is being carried by Death to an immortal state.

Example 2: Neither Out Far Nor In Deep (Robert Frost)

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be—
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Frost’s poem is comprised of four quatrains with structured rhyme schemes and a somewhat consistent pattern of rhythm. This serves to draw the reader into the subject of the poem which is the phenomenon of people being mesmerized by the sea. Frost’s artistic use of quatrains in the poem, in a sense, creates an image of “waves” for the reader, which produces a similar effect to looking at the water as the people are in the poem.

The poet’s choice to end the final quatrain with a question underscores the exploration of the poem as to why people choose to look towards the water as opposed to the land which “may vary more.” The poet offers a key to understanding this behavior with his use of the word “wherever” in the second line of the third quatrain. Rather than postulating “whatever” the truth may be as an entity, the poet instead postulates the location of the truth which, according to the poem, may be out at sea.

Example 3: Let America Be America Again (Langston Hughes)

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
In this beginning excerpt of his poem, Hughes makes effective use of quatrain as a literary device to offset and juxtapose the “promises” of America and the poet’s true feelings about it. The quatrain stanzas in this part of the poem represent the founding principles that are associated with America, such as equality, freedom, and opportunity. These verses employ the rhetoric of the American Dream, pioneer spirit, and individual freedom found in most patriotic songs, poems, and other forms of nationalistic expression.
Hughes then cleverly interjects parenthetical lines between these quatrains that represent how the poet feels as an individual, apart and separate from these American ideals. In doing so, the poet undermines, rejects, and negates the America that is portrayed by the poem’s quatrains. This calls the reader’s attention to the contrast of stanzas in the poem’s structure, as well as the deep contrast between what America appears to promise to its people and the poet’s actual experience as an American.