The Stanza: The Poem Within The Poem

Title page of first edition of Fairy Queen (The Faerie Queene), by Edmund Spenser
Title page of first edition of Fairy Queen (The Faerie Queene), by Edmund Spenser. De Agostini Picture Library

A stanza is a fundamental unit of structure and organization within a work of poetry; the word derives from the Italian stanza, meaning "room." A stanza is a group of lines, sometimes arranged in a specific pattern, usually (but not always) set off from the rest of the work by blank space. There are many forms of stanzas, ranging from stanzas with no pattern or discernible rules to stanzas that follow very strict patterns in terms of number of syllables, rhyme scheme, and line structures.

The stanza is like a paragraph within a work of prose in that it is often self-contained, expressing a unified thought or one step in a progression of thoughts that combined to present the theme and subject of the poem. In some sense, a stanza is a poem within the poem, a piece of the whole that often mimics the overall structure of the work such that each stanza is the poem itself in miniature.

Note poetry that does not break up into stanzas, composed of lines of similar rhythm and length, is known as stichic verse. Most blank verse is stichic in nature.

Forms and Examples of Stanzas

Couplet: A couplet is a pair of lines that form a single rhymed stanza, although often there is no space setting the couplets off from each other:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring” (An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope)

Tercet: Similar to a couplet, the tercet is a stanza composed of three rhyming lines (the rhyme scheme can vary; some tercets will end in the same rhyme, others will follow an ABA rhyme scheme, and there are examples of extremely complex tercet rhyme schemes like the terza rima scheme where the middle line of each tercet rhymes with the first and last line of the subsequent stanza):

“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

I learn by going where I have to go.” (The Waking, Theodore Roethke)

Quatrain: Probably what most people think of when they hear the word stanza, a quatrain is a set of four lines, typically set off by blank space. Quatrains usually contain discrete images and thoughts that contribute to the whole.

Every poem Emily Dickinson wrote was constructed from quatrains:

“Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.” (Because I Could Not Stop for Death, Emily Dickinson)

Rhyme Royal: A Rhyme Royal is a stanza composed of seven lines with a complex rhyme scheme. Rhyme Royals are interesting as they are constructed from other stanza forms—for example, a Rhyme Royal can be a tercet (three lines) combined with a quatrain (four lines) or a tercet combined with two couplets:

“There was a roaring in the wind all night;

The rain came heavily and fell in floods;

But now the sun is rising calm and bright;

The birds are singing in the distant woods;

Over his own sweet voice the Stock-dove broods;

The Jay makes answer as the Magpie chatters;

And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters.” (Resolution and Independence, William Wordsworth)

Ottava rima: A stanza composed of eight lines with ten or eleven syllables using a specific rhyme scheme (abababcc); sometimes used more as a Rhyme Royal with an ironic or subversive eighth line as in Byron’s Don Juan:

“And oh! if e’er I should forget, I swear –

But that’s impossible, and cannot be –

Sooner shall this blue ocean melt to air,

Sooner shall earth resolve itself to sea,

Than I resign thine image, Oh, my fair!

Or think of anything, excepting thee;

A mind diseased no remedy can physic” –

(Here the ship gave a lurch, and he grew seasick.)” (Don Juan, Lord Byron)

Spenserian stanza: Developed by Edmund Spenser specifically for his epic work The Faerie Queene, this stanza is made up of eight lines of iambic pentameter (ten syllables in five pairs) followed by a ninth line with twelve syllables:

“A gentle knight was pricking on the plaine,

Ycladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,

Wherein old dints of deepe woundes did remaine,

The cruell markes of many a bloody fielde;

Yet armes till that time did he never wield:

His angry steede did chide his foaming bitt,

As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:

Full jolly knight he seemed, and faire did sitt,

As one for knightly jousts and fierce encounters fitt.” (The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser)

Note that many specific forms of poems, such as the sonnet or the villanelle, are essentially composed of a single stanza with specific rules of structure and rhyme; for example, a traditional sonnet is fourteen lines of iambic pentameter.

Function of Stanzas

Stanzas serve several functions in a poem:

  • Organization: Stanzas can be used to convey specific thoughts or images.

  • Rhyme: Stanzas allow for internal, repeated rhyme schemes.

  • Visual Presentation: Especially in modern poetry, stanza can be used to control how a poem appears on the page or screen.

  • Transition: Stanzas can also be used to shift in tone or imagery.

  • White Space: White space in poetry is often used to convey silence or ending. Stanzas allow for the creative use of that white space.

Every poem is, in a sense, composed of smaller poems that are its stanzas—which in turn could be said to be composed of smaller poems that are the lines within each stanza. In other words, in poetry, it’s poems all the way down.

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Somers, Jeffrey. "The Stanza: The Poem Within The Poem." ThoughtCo, Mar. 12, 2018, Somers, Jeffrey. (2018, March 12). The Stanza: The Poem Within The Poem. Retrieved from Somers, Jeffrey. "The Stanza: The Poem Within The Poem." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2018).