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Quintain

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Quintain

Sometimes a set of limitations inspires creativity. This is often the case with the quintain, otherwise known as the five line poetic form or stanza. Many variations exist, but all are packed into just five, short lines.

Quintain: poetry

A quintain is a type of poetic form. This can either be a complete poem or a stanza that is part of a poem. There are many types, from ancient forms to more modern ones. Let's take a look at a few examples.

Quintain: poetry examples

In poetry, there are several variations of the quintain, also known as the quintet, that have developed over the centuries. Each has its own unique qualities.

Quintain stanza: cinquain

This is a more modern form of the quintain. Invented by the poet Adelaide Crapsey, it is now considered the American quintain. The cinquain is characterised by its use of Iambic meter that follows a set syllable structure.

Iambic meter is used in poetry and consists of iambs or a metrical foot that is made up of two syllables. The first is unstressed and the second is stressed, so it sounds like this: duh-DUH.

Iambic tetrameter has four iambic feet, while a pentameter has five.

The poem has a very specific 2-4-6-8-2 syllable scheme, that determines its rhythm and tempo.

Inspired by Japanese poetry, Crapsey wrote many cinquains towards the end of her career. A pretty famous one is the poem, 'Niagara' from the collection Verse (1915).

How frail

Above the bulk

Of crashing water hangs,

Autumnal, evanescent, wan,

The moon.

Adelaide Crapsey was an American poet who died of tuberculosis at just 36. She has fallen into relative obscurity since the 1950s but it is thought that her impact on the Modernist poets was considerable. Her work is characterised by her innovative use of metrics and simple, paired back language.

Modernism was a movement across that arts that sought to express new works in new formats and ways, breaking with many of the traditions of the past. Modernist literature is characterised by stream of consciousness narratives, non-linear narratives and absurdism.

Quintain stanza: pentastich quintain

A pentastich quintain is the free verse version of the quintain. It is usually a set of five line stanzas that together make up a poem. As it is free verse, there is no set meter or rhyme scheme for this option. A great example is 'From Blossoms' (2007) by Li-Yung Lee. The first two stanzas are considered to be pentastich quintains.

From blossoms comesthis brown paper bag of peacheswe bought from the boyat the bend in the road where we turned towardsigns painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,from sweet fellowship in the bins,comes nectar at the roadside, succulentpeaches we devour, dusty skin and all,comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,to carry within us an orchard, to eatnot only the skin, but the shade,not only the sugar, but the days, to holdthe fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into

the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we liveas if death were nowherein the background; from joyto joy to joy, from wing to wing,from blossom to blossom toimpossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Quintain stanza: English quintain

Next up is the English quintain. This version has a set rhyme scheme of ABABA, but no set meter or syllables.

The English Quintain is exemplified by the poem 'Upon a Spider Catching a Fly' (1684) by the Puritan poet, Edward Taylor. Made up of ten quintains, it makes use of a few different meters from Iambic trimeter (line 1) to dimeter (line 2–4), tetrameter (line 3) and manometer (line 5).

Thou sorrow, venom elf.Is this thy play,To spin a web out of thyselfTo catch a fly?For why?

Quintain stanza: Spanish quintain

The Spanish quintain or the quintilla uses iambic tetrameter and follows a rhyme scheme that can include any variation. The only set rule is that no more than two lines in a row can rhyme at a time. Also, the last two lines cannot be rhyming couplets. It is octosyllabic, meaning it has eight syllables per line.

As this was a poetic form most popular in 15th century Spain, there are very few English language examples. A classic Spanish quintilla is Nicolás Fernández de Moratín’s 'Fiesta de toros en Madrid' (unknown, possibly 1772). It uses four of the potential rhyme scheme permutations, with the first stanza as an example below:

Madrid, castillo famoso

que al rey moro alivia el miedo,

arde en fiestas en su coso,

por ser el natal dichoso

de Alimenón de Toledo.

Do you think you need to understand the language to count the syllables? Can you pick up the rhyme of the poem by counting these out?

The poem, 'Fiesta de toros en Madrid' is about a bullfight and the crowd who have gathered to watch it and possibly each other too. The poet, Nicolás Fernández de Moratín, was part of a group of famous intellectuals during the reign of Carlos III. Their manifesto was to limit conversation and their art to the subjects of theatre, bull-fighting, love, and poetry. The poem achieves that thematic restriction quite well.

An English language poem that is very close to being a pure quintilla is Dante Gabrielle Rossetti’s 'Autumn Song' (unknown). It meets all of the criteria except for the syllable count, which is sometimes over the allowed eight syllables per line.

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leafHow the heart feels a languid grief Laid on it for a covering, And how sleep seems a goodly thingIn Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

Quintain stanza: Sicilian quintain

The Sicilian quintain is yet another variation on the five line stanza. Originally, it had no set rhyme scheme or meter, but came to be associated with Iambic pentameter after it was adopted by Shakespeare. A famous example of the Sicilian quatrain is the first stanza of Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 99' (1609).

The forward violet thus did I chide:Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smellsIf not from my love’s breath? The purple prideWhich on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells,In my love’s veins, thou hast too grossly dyed.

Limerick

The limerick is a hugely popular version of the quintain. Rather than a five line stanza, it is a complete poem made up of just five lines. Often just a little crude, limericks are also usually humorous. They follow an AABBA rhyme scheme and make use of Iambic trimeter.

Edward Lear, a 19th century English poet, popularized the form, but it is thought to have originated in the Irish town of Limerick. An 18th century soldier's song titled 'Will (or won't) you come to Limerick?' was adapted to include short verses similar to the Limerick's format. It has also been suggested that 18th century Gaelic minstrels invented the form as entertainment and a way to gently mock the world around them.

Although some poets have made a name writing limericks, many of the most quoted poems are by unknowns. This popular limerick is thought to be by an anonymous reader of Punch magazine. It is called, 'Relativity' (1923).

There was a young lady named Bright Whose speed was far faster than light; She set out one day In a relative wayAnd returned on the previous night.

This limerick is about Einstein's Theory of Relativity that was first published in 1905 and finalised in 1915–1916. His theory is split into the General and Special Theories of Relativity. Let's take a look at how this limerick uses his theories in a witty way.

'Whose speed was faster than light'

This relates to the speed of light and the fact that she is moving faster than this.

'She set out one day In a relative way'

Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity deals with the phenomena related to bodies in relative motion.

'And returned on the previous night.'

An allusion to the body of literature that hypothesises that time goes backwards at speeds faster than the speed of light.

Tanka

The tanka is an ancient Japanese form dating back to the 7th century. Made popular by the members of the Imperial Court and those who were 'courting', it has been modernised by contemporary Japanese poets.

In the original Japanese, a tanka is a 31 syllable poem of one line. When translated into English, the single line poem is split over five lines, making it a typical quintain. In this form, the syllable structure is 5/7/5/7/7.

Traditionally, the tanka has a pivotal image in the third line, which marks the switch from the examination of the subject image to the personal reply or response. The first section of the poem is called the kami-no-ku, or upper poem. The last section is known as the lower poem or the shimo-no-ku.

The most renowned tanka poets of antiquity were generally noble women and courtesans. While in the West the tanka does not have the main stream popularity of the haiku, it is a really well-known form in Japan.

In the 7th century when the tanka was thought to be created, the Yamato Imperial Court was based in what is now the Nara prefecture. The era is called the Yamato Period and fell under the rule of the Yamato Kingship.

Yosano Akiko is a more modern poet who made extensive use of the tanka in her publication, Dishevelled Hair (1901).

We leaned against the railing

That runs along the bright bank

Of the wide Oi River at night

Dressed in light blue

In our very own summer!

Another modern master of the tanka is Kitahara Hakushu. This is one of his untitled tanka poems, translated by Margaret Benson Fukusawa in 2010.

I climb a hill

With a fish over my shoulder

The purple flowers

In the potato fields

Are now in full bloom'

Quintain (poetry) - Key takeaways

  • Quintains are poems or stanza made up of 5 lines.

  • Entire poems that are quintains include the tanka and the limerick.

  • Poems that include 5 line stanzas range from the cinquain to the English quintain, the Spanish quintain, and the pastichian to the Sicilian quintain.

  • Tankas and limericks have a set number of syllables that define them as unique types of poems. The limerick uses iambic pentameter, while the tanka has 31 syllables in total.

  • The only quintain stanza that does not have any set rhyme scheme or meter is the Pentastich quintain.

Frequently Asked Questions about Quintain

A quintrain is a five line poem or stanza.

This depends on what type of quintrain poem you want to write. A good place to start is to find out what the form 'rules' are for the type of poem you want to write. Then get writing.

A quintrain poem is a five line poem that can be either a limerick or a tanka.

A quintain can either be a whole poem of five lines or a stanza of five lines.

The tanka.

Final Quintain Quiz

Question

What is a quintain?

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Answer

The five line poetic form or stanza.

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Question

What type of verse does a Pentastich quintain use?

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Answer

A Pentastich quintain is a free verse quintain.

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Question

What syllable structure does a cinquain use?

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Answer

 2-4-6-8-2

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Question

Who invented the cinquain?

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Answer

Adelaide Crampsey.

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Question

What type of quintain is 'From Blossoms' (2007) by Li-Yung Lee. 

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Answer

Pentastich quintain.

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Question

What rhyme scheme does an English quintain?

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Answer

ABABA,

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Question

What meter does the Spanish quintain use?

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Answer

Iambic tetrameter.

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Question

Which quintain is octosyllabic?

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Answer

Spanish quintain.

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Question

What kind of quintain is Dante Gabrielle Rossetti’s 'Autumn Song' closest to?

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Answer

Spanish quintain.

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Question

What meter does the  Sicilian quintain use?

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Answer

Iambic pentameter.

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Question

What type of quintain is Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 99'?

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Answer

Sicilian quintain.

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Question

What rhyme scheme does a limerick have?

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Answer

AABBA.

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Question

Which quintain poem form uses iambic trimester?

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Answer

Limerick.

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Question

What type of poems did Edward Lear?

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Answer

Limerick.

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Question

What is the set syllable structure for a tanka?

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Answer

5/7/5/7/7.

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