A quatrain (KWA-trayn) is a four-line stanza. Quatrains can exist as stanzas within a larger poem, or they can be standalone poems made of a single quatrain. They can utilize rhyme and meter, or they can be written in free verse. The line length of quatrains can vary.
The word quatrain was first used in English in the 1580s and meant “four-line stanza.” It comes from the Middle French quatrain, deriving from the Old French quatre, meaning “four” and, preceding that, the Latin quattuor, which also means “four.”
Brief History of the Quatrain
The quatrain has been popular throughout the history of poetry. Quatrains exist in the poetry of ancient societies from Greece and Rome to China and India. During the European Dark Ages, the quatrain was employed by many poets in the Middle East, including Omar Khayyam. The famous prophecies of Nostradamus (16th century) were written in quatrains as well.
Types of Quatrain
- Ballad quatrains: These are written in iambic tetrameter and follow an ABAB rhyme scheme. These ballads originated with the wandering minstrels of late medieval Europe, although they’ve been documented in print since the end of the 15th century. Famous early ballads include Wynkyn de Worde’s Robin Hood ballads (circa 1495) and Samuel Pepys’s collection of broadside ballads.
- Common meter quatrains: This consists of quatrains that alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Emily Dickinson frequently wrote in common meter quatrains, and many hymns, such as “Amazing Grace,” are composed in common meter as well. Common meter quatrains are often referred to as hymnal quatrains, particularly when they follow the rhyme scheme of ABAB.
- Envelope stanzas: This type indicates quatrains that are written in iambic tetrameter with an ABBA rhyme scheme. They bear this name because the rhymes of the first and last line of each quatrain enclose (envelop) the middle two lines.
- Heroic stanza: This indicates a quatrain written in iambic pentameter and following an ABAB or AABB rhyme scheme. Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is a famous example of heroic stanzas, as are Geoffrey Chaucer’s narrative poems and works by William Shakespeare and John Dryden. This form is also referred to as the elegiac stanza or the decadyllabic quatrain.
- Memoriam stanza: These are quatrains written in iambic tetrameter with an ABBA rhyme scheme. The most famous example is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A. H. H.”
- Midnight Song quatrain: This form comes from fourth-century China and consists of five Chinese characters per line, arranged into rhymed couplets.
- Pantoums: This is a form of poetry that derives from the Malaysian pantun. This form contains a shifting repeated pattern of lines arranged into quatrains and following an ABAB rhyme scheme. Charles Baudelaire popularized the pantoum, and many modern poets, such as John Ashbery, David Trinidad, and Marilyn Hacker, employ it.
- Ruba’i: This is a type of classical Persian quatrain that follows a set pattern of long and short syllables. The ruba’i generally follows an AAAA rhyme scheme. The most famous of these can be found in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
- Shichigon-zekku quatrains: These are prevalent in classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. These quatrains consist of seven-character lines, as well as rhythm and rhyme.
Quatrains and Verse Type
Blank verse refers to poetry that doesn’t utilize rhyme. Quatrains tend to be rarer in blank verse than in formal or free verse, but they do occasionally occur—particularly as lines of dialogue in verse plays.
For example, in Act I, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lysander says:
Ay me! For aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth;
But, either it was different in blood,–
This quatrain of dialogue is written in iambic pentameter, as is most of Shakespeare’s work, but doesn’t rhyme
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;
This poem is written in iambic pentameter, and each of its three stanzas follows an envelope stanza rhyme scheme of ABBA.
This type of poetry doesn’t utilize any set meter or rhyme. Although either may occur within the poem, they don’t follow any pattern. Free verse poems may also maintain a set line count per stanza, or the stanzas within the poem may vary in line number.
danez smith’s “how many of us have them?” begins with a monostich (a single line), which they follow with a couplet, a tercet, and then a quatrain:
laughing bout something i couldn’t hear
over my own holler, trying to steady
the wheel & not hit they asses as they swerved
frienddrunk, making their little loops, sun-lotioned
smith continues to add one line to each subsequent stanza of the poem, eventually concluding with a 12-line final stanza.
Examples of Quatrain in Literature
1. Robert Burns “A Red, Red Rose”
This famous poem by the Scottish poet begins:
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.”
Burns’s poem continues for an additional three stanzas, all of which are written in Scots dialect, follow an ABCB rhyme scheme, and explore the speaker’s devotion to his beloved.
2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Coleridge’s long poem was first published in his book Lyrical Ballads. The poem utilizes the frame story of a man stopped on his way to a wedding by an Ancient Mariner, who relates a terrifying and strange tale. In the opening stanza, Coleridge writes:
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?
This opening is a quatrain with an ABCB rhyme scheme. This poem is written primarily in short ballad stanzas and follows a metrical pattern where odd lines are tetrameter and even lines are composed in trimeter.
3. Marilyn Chin, “Chinese Quatrains (The Woman in Tomb 44)”
Chin’s poem “Chinese Quatrains (The Woman in Tomb 44)” consists of a series of quatrains, presented with extra spaces surrounding each stanza. The second and third stanzas are as follows:
A dragonfly has iridescent wings
Shorn, it’s a lowly pismire
Plucked of arms and legs
A throbbing red pepperpod
Baby, she’s a girl
Pinkly propped as a doll
Baby, she’s a pearl
An ulcer in the oyster of God
The quatrains in this poem occasionally utilize rhyme but don’t follow any set pattern. The connections between the stanzas themselves arise through associative imagery (the color pink, images of nature) and thematic concerns, such as family, sex, death, and Chinese identity, rather than through a sustained narrative.
Further Resources on Quatrain
Frontier Poetry covers the quatrain in tandem with the prose poem and the list poem.
Michael R. Burch wrote up a list of great quatrain poems for The HyperTexts.