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Terza Rima

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English Literature

A terza rima is a poetic form most notable for its inclusion in Dante's 'Divine Comedy' (1308-20). Poems with terza rima have a consistent rhyme scheme of ABABCBCDC. This form of poetry has been popular for many centuries; there are a number of notable examples including Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind' (1820).

Terza rima: definition

It would help to get our terms straight, before we begin.

Terza rima - a type of verse that consists of tercets written using an interlocking rhyme scheme.

Tercets - A unit of poetry that consists of three lines.

Interlocking rhyme scheme - A rhyme scheme that follows the pattern ABABCBCDC. This rhyme scheme will have the second line of the stanza rhyme with the first and third lines of the next stanza.

Terza rima: history

Terza rima was first used in Italy during the 14th century. This form of the poem was pioneered by the poet Dante Alighieri in his epic poem 'Divine Comedy' (1308-1320).

'The Divine Comedy'

The 'Divine Comedy' was written by the poet Dante Alighieri over a period of eight years from 1308 to 1320. The epic poem was split into three parts; Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradisio (Paradise). These sections detailed the protagonist's (Dante) journey through the Catholic afterlife as he travels through hell and purgatory on his way to heaven.

Canto - from medieval Italian poetry, canto is a way to divide sections of a long poem.

Each part of the 'Divine Comedy' has 33 cantos. Within this, there are multiple three-line stanzas written in terza rima. In each tercet, the second line will rhyme with the first and third lines of the next stanza. This creates an interlocking effect, as seen below.

Tant’ è amara che poco è più more; A

ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai, B

dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte. A

Io non so ben ridir com’ i’ v’intrai, B

tant’ era pien di sonno a quel punto C

che la verace via abbandonai. B

It is thought that Dante used terza rima to aid the reading of the text.

Terza rima was first used in English poetry by Geoffrey Chaucer. However, the form gained much of its popularity through the work of Sir Thomas Wyatt. He translated many medieval Italian poems, as well as writing his own in similar styles. This can be seen in his poem 'The Second Satire' (1534).

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.

She thought herself endured to much pain:The stormy blasts her cave so sore did souse...

Terza rima was also a popular form of poetry during the Romantic movement. This movement is noted for its adoration of nature as well as the mind, and is known for its aim of achieving an emotional response from art. The Romantic movement pushed back against the Enlightenment and used the poetry of Dante and Wyatt for inspiration. An example of terza rima being used in the Romantic period can be seen in the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, in poems such as 'Ode to the West Wind' (1820).

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed...

This form of poetry is still in use during the 20th and 21st centuries. However, following the Romantic movement, modernist poets began to move away from the traditional characteristics of the terza rima.

Modernism - A philosophical and artistic movement established in the early 20th century. Modernism valued the desire to create new, innovative forms of art that reflected the modern world.

One way this was done was by using slant (or imperfect) rhymes.

Slant rhymes - Sometimes referred to as imperfect rhymes, this is when two words only partially rhyme.

This is seen in William Carlos Williams' poem 'The Yachts' (1938):

contend in a sea which the land partly enclosesshielding them from the too-heavy blowsof an ungoverned ocean which when it choosestortures the biggest hulls, the best man knowsto pit against its beatings, and sinks them pitilessly.Mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute...

Terza rima: key features

Let's look at some of the main characteristics of this form.

Number of lines

Poems written in terza rima can be as long as you want. However, the poem should be divided into tercets. Dante originally used tercets as the three lines were to represent the three elements that comprise the Holy Spirit in Christianity - God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. When a poem is written using terza rima, the final tercet has to be followed by a single line. The purpose of this line is to close the poem and its rhyme scheme.

Terza rima: rhyme scheme

The most important element of terza rima is the form's interlocking rhyme scheme of ABA BCB CDC DED. The rhyme scheme here will have the second line of the stanza rhyme with the first and third lines of the next stanza. This creates an interlocking effect, as it links each of the stanzas together. Poems written in terza rima were traditionally longer in length (each section of the 'Divine Comedy' has 33 cantos, as we saw!), so an interlocking rhyme scheme was used to move the reader forward in the poem, utilising its surging narrative effect.

This is seen in the poem, 'Acquainted with the Night' (1928) by Robert Frost.

I have been one acquainted with the night. A
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain. B
I have outwalked the furthest city light. A
I have looked down the saddest city lane. B
I have passed by the watchman on his beat C
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain. B

Metre

While there is no set meter for terza rima, English poets tend to use the iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter - A line of poetry consisting of five metrical feet. Each foot is comprised of one unstressed syllable, followed by one stressed syllable.

Iambic pentameter is used in terza rima to give the poem a melodic quality, as well as closely replicate speech. An example of terza rima that uses iambic pentameter can also be seen in 'Acquainted with the Night' by Frost.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feetWhen far away an interrupted cryCame over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;And further still at an unearthly height,One luminary clock against the sky...

Terza rima: poems and example

Now that we have established the definition, history, and key features of the terza rima, let's look at how this appears in a full poem. Below are the first three sections of Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind'.

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

As we can see, the poem is written in tercets, and there is an interlocking rhyme scheme throughout the poem. It is also in iambic pentameter. From this, it is clear that the poem is using the form terza rima.

Terza Rima - Key takeaways

  • Terza rima is a type of poem that consists of tercets written using an interlocking rhyme scheme.
  • It was first used by Dante Alighieri in his poem 'Divine Comedy' (1308-1320).
  • There is a strict rhyme scheme of ABABCBCDC.

  • Some modern poets will use slant or imperfect rhymes in terza rima poems.

  • There is no set metre. However, many terza rima poems in English use iambic pentameter.

Terza Rima

Examples of terza rima include 'Acquainted with the Night' (1928) by Robert Frost, and 'Ode to the West Wind' (1820) by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Terza rima was notably used by Dante in his epic work 'Divine Comedy' (1308-1320).

The typical purpose of terza rima is to move the reader forward in the text. 

To write a terza rima poem you should write in tercets, with a rhyme scheme of ABA, BCB, CDC. This rhyme scheme can continue for as many tercets as you require. Terza rima is typically written in iambic pentameter. 

Terza rima is a form of poem that consists of tercets written using an interlocking rhyme scheme. 

Final Terza Rima Quiz

Question

What is terza rima?

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Answer

Terza rima is a type of poem that consists of tercets written using an interlocking rhyme scheme. 

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Question

Who is credited with creating the terza rima?

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Answer

Dante Alighieri 

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Question

In which poem did terza rima first appear?

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Answer

'Divine Comedy' (1308-1320)

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Question

True or False: Terza rima is comprised of octaves.

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Answer

False! Terza rima is not comprised of octaves. 

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Question

How many lines are in each stanza of terza rima?

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Answer

3

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Question

What is the name of stanzas with three lines?

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Answer

Tercets

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Question

True or False: There is no rhyme scheme in terza rima. 

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Answer

False: There is a rhyme scheme in terza rima. 

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Question

What is the rhyme scheme for a poem written in terza rima?


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Answer

The rhyme scheme for terza rima is ABABCBCDC.

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Question

What word describes the rhyme scheme in Terza rimas?

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Answer

Interlocking

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Question

Is there a set meter in terza rima?

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Answer

No! There is not a set meter in terza rima.

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Question

What meter are many English terza rima poems written in?

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Answer

Iambic pentameter

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Question

What is the purpose of terza rima?

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Answer

The purpose of terza rima is to move the reader forward in the narrative. 

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Question

Who is credited with popularising terza rima in England?

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Answer

Sir Thomas Wyatt

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Question

True or False: Chaucer was the first person to use terza rima in England. 

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Answer

True: Chaucer was the first person to use terza rima in England. 

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Question

What is a canto?

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Answer

A canto is a section in a long, typically medieval poem

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