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# Quatrain

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Quatrains can be traced back to the literary traditions of several ancient civilisations, including Persia, India, Greece, Rome, and China, and continue to dominate poems even today. This is due to a quatrain's versatility with different rhyme schemes and its neatness and regularity. Let us look at the meaning of a quatrain, the rules and formats they exist in and a few examples of poems that use quatrains to better understand this form.

## Quatrain meaning

The word 'quatrain' comes from the French word quatre, which means 'four'. A quatrain is a type of stanza that has only four lines, usually with a specific rhyme scheme.

Stanza: A stanza is a group of lines in a poem, arranged as a unit, similar to a paragraph in prose. Stanzas of a poem are separated by a blank line.

A quatrain can exist both as a standalone poem of just four lines or exist as a four-lined stanza within a larger poem.

At four lines, with the quatrain, we reach the basic stanza form familiar from a whole range of English poetic practice. This is the length of the ballad stanza, the verse of a hymn, and innumerable other kinds of verse.1

The quatrain was originally from Ancient Greece and Rome. However, it was popularised as a poetic form when Omar Khayyam, a Persian poet, astronomer and mathematician, made sole use of the quatrain in his book Rubáiyát (Arabic word meaning 'quatrains') written in 1120 A.C.E. In 1859, Omár Khayyám's work was loosely translated from Persian to English by English poet Edward Fitzgerald, who published the selection of quatrains in a book titled Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: the Astronomer-Poet of Persia (1859). The popularity of Fitzgerald's translated work is what led to the introduction of quatrains in English Literature.

Fig.1 - Portrait of Omar Khayyam.

## Quatrain rules

Quatrains are known for being versatile and hence have only two rules that make up this poetic form.

### Length

A stanza can only be called a quatrain if it has exactly four lines. Any stanza with lines more or less than four does qualify as a quatrain.

Hence, if a poem has multiple stanzas that are all quatrains, each four-lined stanza would be demarcated clearly by a blank line that would separate it from the subsequent stanza.

Emily Dickinson's poem 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers' (1891) clearly shows how multiple quatrains can be structured within one poem.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

The four-line length of a quatrain makes it perfect for conveying a full thought or even a short narrative within a stanza. This makes it an ideal divisive unit for poetry, as it allows writers to divide the poem into neat and coherent stanzas that each convey a full thought or narrative, much like different chapters of a book!

### Rhyme scheme

In most cases, quatrains contain some sort of rhyme scheme and meter, although some poets have used quatrains in free verse and blank verse.

There are fifteen different possible rhyme schemes that can be used within a quatrain. However, here are the ones most commonly used by poets:

• AAAA (monorhyme)
• AABB (double couplet)
• ABAB (alternate rhyme)
• ABBA (enclosed rhyme)
• ABAC/ ABCB (ballad quatrain)

• A poet can have a poem with multiple quatrains all with the same exact rhyme scheme, or choose to change the rhyme scheme from stanza to stanza. In some cases, half rhymes are also acceptable instead of perfect rhymes.

Half rhyme: When the ending consonant sounds of words are the same, but their ending vowel sounds are not, they are called half rhymes (otherwise known as slant rhymes or near rhymes). Example: 'young' and 'song'.

The wide array of possibilities available while writing in quatrains allows poets to enjoy some creative freedom while keeping their poems neatly structured and coherent.

## Quatrain poem format

Quatrains are commonly seen in formal verses, although they make a frequent appearance in free verse and in rarer cases, blank verse.

### Quatrains in formal verse

Quatrains work best within a formal verse, as these poems have a fixed metric pattern and rhyme scheme. Based on some of the most commonly used rhyme schemes and metric patterns within quatrains, they can be divided into four types.

#### Heroic stanza

The heroic stanza is a type of quatrain that follows a rhyme scheme of either ABAB (alternative rhyme) or AABB (double couplet). They are written in the metric pattern of iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter: A type of metric line used in English poetry that makes use of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (iamb) five times (pentameter).

The heroic stanza is also sometimes referred to as an elegiac stanza because the form became associated with elegiac poetry in the 18th century.

Elegiac poem: A lyrical poem written to mourn, honour and reflect on the loss of someone.

An example of a famous elegy is Thomas Grey's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' (1751), lamenting the death of poet Richard West in 1742.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,These two quatrains are the first stanzas in Grey's poem. Each stanza of the poem follows a consistent ABAB rhyme scheme and has been written in iambic pentameter.

#### Ruba’i

This is a type of classical quatrain that comes from Persia. It was first popularised by Omar Khayyam somewhere in the 11th century when he wrote the Rubáiyát (1120 A.C.E) exclusively using quatrains.

A ruba’i has a rhyme scheme of AABA or AAAA (monorhyme). A Persian ruba’i usually follows a meter of 13 long and short syllables; however, this metric pattern is often lost when it is translated from Persian to English.

Here is the second verse of one of Omar Khayyam's ruba’is, translated by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859.

Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
The rhyme scheme here is AABA. Fitzgerald's skills lay in adapting the original work to English whilst writing consistently in iambic pentameter.

Here is an example of the English adaptation of a ruba'i by American poet Robert Frost, who wrote 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' (1923) entirely in iambic tetrameter.

Whose woods these are I think I know.

My little horse must think it queer
The rhyme scheme here is also AABA.

#### Ballad stanza

Ballad stanzas are quatrains written with the rhyme scheme ABCB. The choice of metric pattern is usually iambic tetrameter (of eight syllables or iambic trimeter (of six syllables). A ballad stanza is known for being melodic and ideal for hymns, which is why they are also called hymnal stanzas.

The 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is an example of a ballad that has the rhyme scheme ABCB. Here are the first two stanzas of the poem:

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din.'

#### Envelope quatrain

The name of this type of quatrain is 'envelop quatrain' because it follows the rhyme scheme of ABBA, where the rhymes in the first and fourth lines 'envelop' the rhymes in the two middle lines.

The first stanza of 'Shakespeare' (1849) by Matthew Arnold is an envelop quatrain with the rhyme scheme ABBA.

Others abide our question. Thou art free.

We ask and ask—Thou smilest and art still,

Out-topping knowledge. For the loftiest hill,

Who to the stars uncrowns his majesty,

#### Memoriam stanza

Another variation of the envelope quatrain, the Memoriam quatrain, also follows the rhyme scheme ABBA but is written in iambic tetrameter.

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 'In Memoriam A. H. H' (1850), is a poem utilsing memoriam stanzas. Here are the first two stanzas of Tennyson's poem:

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;
Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.

### Quatrains in free verse

A few contemporary poets have used quatrains to provide more structure to their free verse poems, although these quatrains do not follow any fixed rules with regard to having a consistent rhyme scheme and metric pattern.

Free verse: Poetry that has no consistent rhyme scheme or metric patterns.

Walt Whitman's 'Song of Myself' (1855) is an example of a poem that uses quatrains in free verse poetry. Here are two stanzas from the first section of the poem:

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,

Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,

I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,

Nature without check with original energy.

### Quatrains in blank verse

Quatrains are rare in blank verse, as this type of verse is used in longer narrative poems for dramas and plays, which do not need to be structured into stanzas at all.

Blank verse: Poems that have a regular metric pattern but no rhyme scheme have been written in blank verse.

There are a few limited examples where dialogue dramas and plays have been segregated into four-lined stanzas to add dramatic effect.

Shakespeare made use of a quatrain to structure one of Romeo's dialogues in Romeo and Juliet (1597). The quatrain has no rhyme but is written in iambic pentameter.

ROMEO (Act 2, Scene 2)
I have night's cloak to hide me from their sight;
And but thou love me, let them find me here:
My life were better ended by their hate,
Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.

Fig. 2 - Romeo and Juliet (1597)

## Quatrain poems

Here are a few examples of famous poems that use quatrains.

### 'She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways' (1798) by William Wordsworth

This poem by William Wordsworth makes use of quatrains that are in the form of ballad stanzas with the rhyme scheme following the ABCB structure and a metric pattern of iambic tetrameter.

Like most ballad stanzas, this poem, too, is an elegy written in honour of the speaker's deceased beloved and the grief and pain this loss has inflicted on the speaker.

She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh

The difference to me!

### 'When You Are Old' (1893) by William Butler Yeats

Yeats' poem uses an enveloped quatrain with the rhyme scheme structure of ABBA and metric pattern of iambic pentameter. This rhyme scheme pattern within the quatrain emphasises Yeats' undying passion for his beloved, who he will love even when she is 'old and grey and full of sleep' (line 1).

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Verse 1 in Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859)

This is an example of another one of Omar Khayyam's verses from Rubáiyát (1120 A.C.E.), translated from Persian to English by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859. The rhyme scheme here is AABA, which is consistent with the ruba'i form.

Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultán's Turret in a Noose of Light.

## Other quatrain examples

While quatrains exist predominantly in poems, here is an example of a verse drama that makes use of a quatrain.

### Doctor Faustus (1592) by Christopher Marlowe

Doctor Faustus is a tragic drama written by Christopher Marlowe that makes use of a line break to turn a dialogue of eight lines into two quatrains to show the transition from one speaker to another. The metric pattern, in this case, is iambic pentameter, as is with most verse dramas, and there is no rhyme scheme.

GOOD ANGEL:

O, Faustus, lay that damned book aside,

EVIL ANGEL:

Go forward, Faustus, in that famous art

(Scene I, 70-77)

## Quatrain - Key takeaways

• A quatrain is a type of stanza that has only four lines, usually with a specific rhyme scheme.
• A quatrain has two primary rules
• Length: A quatrain is exactly four lines long
• Rhyme scheme: In most cases, quatrains contain some sort of rhyme scheme and meter
• A quatrain is most common in formal verse, where it appears in five types:
• Heroic stanza
• Ruba'i
• Ballad stanza
• Envelope quatrain
• Memoriam stanza

• A quatrain can also exist in free verse and rarely in blank verse

• Here are a few examples of literary works that include quatrains:

References
1. James Fenton. An Introduction to English Poetry. 2002
2. Fig. 1- Portrait of Omar Khayyam (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/99/Portrait_of_Omar_Khayyam.jpg) by Amir Mohammad Ghasemizadeh is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)
3. Fig. 2 - Public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Romeo_and_juliet_brown.jpg

## Frequently Asked Questions about Quatrain

A quatrain is a type of stanza that has only four lines, usually with a specific rhyme scheme.

The heroic stanza is a type of quatrain that follows a rhyme scheme of either ABAB (alternative rhyme) or AABB (double couplet). They are written in the metric pattern of iambic pentameter

A stanza can only be called a quatrain if it has exactly four lines. Any stanza with lines more or less than four does qualify as a quatrain.

Emily Dickinson's poem 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers' (1891) clearly shows how multiple quatrains can be structured within one poem. Here is the first stanza of the poem:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

Here are a few examples of poems that include quatrains:

• 'She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways' (1798) by William Wordsworth

• 'When You Are Old' (1893) by William Butler Yeats

• Verse 1 in Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859)

## Quatrain Quiz - Teste dein Wissen

Question

What is a quatrain?

Show answer

Answer

A quatrain is a type of stanza that has only four lines, usually with a specific rhyme scheme.

Show question

Question

Is this stanza a quatrain? Why or why not?

"And at last I know my love for you is here,

I can see it all, it is whole like the twilight,

It is large, so large, I could not see it before

Because of the little lights and flickers and interruptions,

Troubles, anxieties, and pains."

Show answer

Answer

No, this stanza is not a quatrain because it has more than four lines.

Show question

Question

In a quatrain, half rhymes are also acceptable instead of perfect rhymes. True or False?

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Answer

True

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Question

Quatrains are most commonly found in blank verse. True or false?

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Answer

False

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Question

Which type of quatrain is originally from Persia?

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Answer

The ruba'i is a type of quatrain from Persia

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Question

What is the alternative name given to the heroic stanza?

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Answer

Heroic stanzas can also be called elegiac stanza

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Question

What is the rhyme scheme of a ballad stanza?

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Answer

Ballad stanzas are quatrains written with the rhyme scheme ABCB

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Question

Why has the 'envelope quatrain' been given this name?

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Answer

The name of this type of quatrain is 'envelop quatrain' because it follows the rhyme scheme of ABBA, where the rhymes in the first and fourth lines 'envelop' the rhymes in the two middle lines.

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Question

Give an example of a poem using Memoiram stanzas.

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Answer

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 'In Memoriam A. H. H' (1850), is a poem utilsing memoriam stanzas.

Show question

Question

Which type of quatrain is this stanza?

'Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultán's Turret in a Noose of Light.'

Show answer

Answer

As the rhyme scheme of the stanza is AABA, this type of quatrain is a ruba'i written by Omar Khayyam (translated to English by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859).

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