Stanza

What Is a Stanza? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Stanza Definition

 

Stanza (STAN-zuh) refers to a group of lines that forms the basic unit in a poem. Think of a stanza as the equivalent of a paragraph in prose. Stanzas appear in free verse, blank verse, and formal verse poetry.

The word stanza first appeared in English in the 1580s and indicated a “group of rhymed verse lines.” The word derives from the Italian stanza, meaning “verse of a poem.” An additional meaning of “standing, stopping place” came from the Vulgar Latin stantia, meaning “a stanza of verse,” which indicated the stop at the end of the stanza. This originated from the Latin stantem, from stare, meaning “to stand” or “to make or be firm.”

 

Types of Stanzas

 

A poem can be made up of multiple stanzas that have the same line count, or it can contain stanzas of varying line counts. A poem can also consist of only one stanza with any number of lines.

Stanza forms are generally determined by the number of lines the stanza contains. The following are the most common.

  • A couplet refers to a stanza consisting of two lines. A poem can contain multiple couplets, or the entire poem can be a single couplet, such as “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound.
  • A dizain is a stanza made up of 10 lines. John Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is a poem made of dizains.
  • A monostich is a one-line stanza. Sometimes, a poem will contain multiple monostich lines, but often the entire poem is a monostich, such as A.R. Ammons’s “Coward”: “Bravery runs in my family.”
  • A nonet is a stanza consisting of nine lines. Nonets are sometimes called Spenserian stanzas or nine-line stanzas. The Spenserian stanza has requirements beyond a count of nine lines: it must be written in iambic pentameter for the first eight lines and end with a single line in iambic hexameter. An example of a Spenserian stanza, of course, comes from Edmund Spenser: “The Faerie Queene” is comprised of nine-line stanzas, though the 36-line beginning of the poem is not broken into separate nonets.
  • An octet is a stanza made up of eight lines. The octet is frequently seen in Italian literature in the fixed verse form called ottava rima, which consists of eight 11-syllable lines with a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC. Octets are often confused with octaves, which are eight-line stanzas written in iambic pentameter that usually follow the rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA. Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” provides examples of octet stanzas.
  • A sestet, sometimes called a sextain or sestain, is a stanza consisting of six lines. Sestets are most often seen in fixed verse poetic forms, such as the sestina, although the final stanza of a sestina is a tercet (three-line stanza). Sestets are also seen in sonnets.
  • A septet refers to a stanza of seven lines. An example can be found in the fifth stanza of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”
  • A tercet, or tristich, is a stanza of three lines. Tercets are most frequently seen in the terza rima form: an arrangement of tercets, most frequently written in iambic meter, with a rhyme scheme of ABA, BCB, CDC, etc. The Japanese haiku is always a tercet, and the French villanelle also utilizes tercets.
  • A quintain, more commonly called a cinquain, refers to a stanza of five lines. Limericks are always written in quintains. The cinquain’s creation is credited to Adelaide Crapsey, an American poet in the early 20th century. Her poem “November Night” consists of a single cinquain.
  • A quatrain is a stanza consisting of four lines. Ballads are generally written in metered quatrains with an ABCB rhyme scheme. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is an example of a ballad.

 

Stanza’s Relationship with Poetry Types

 

Stanzas in Free Verse

Free verse poets often choose to end their stanzas at a certain place to signal a shift in the poem’s focus, indicate a pause, carry the action along, or conclude a unit of meaning within the poem. In free verse poetry, the separation between stanzas is obvious: there is a blank line in between each stanza, which is called a stanza break. Stanzas in free verse poetry can consist of any number of lines, and there is no requirement that multiple stanzas must adhere to the same line count.

Stanzas in Formal Verse

Formal verse requires that a poem maintains set patterns of meter and rhyme; however, those patterns can change between individual stanzas. For example, a formal verse poem might have stanzas that alternate between tercets written in dactyls and quatrains written in iambs, or the poem might maintain the same meter and rhyme scheme in each of its stanzas. Often, specific forms require a certain type of stanza or stanza count. For example, sonnets primarily employ octets and sestets for the Italian sonnet variation, while Shakespearean sonnets utilize quatrains and a concluding couplet.

In some formal verse poems, the visual cue of the stanza break is not always there. A poem can look like one long stanza because its actual stanzas aren’t separated in a visual way. In these cases, stanzas can be differentiated according to places in the poem where the rhyme scheme or meter changes.

Stanzas in Lyric and Narrative Poetry

Lyric poetry refers to poetry that focuses on conveying feelings rather than relating events. Narrative poetry, on the other hand, is poetry that relays a story. Stanzas are used in both lyric and narrative poetry, and there are no set requirements for which stanza types are used in these genres.

 

Examples of Stanzas in Literature

 

1. Ada Limon, “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual

In this free verse poem, Limon writes entirely in couplets. It begins:

When you come, bring your brown-
ness so we can be sure to please

the funders. Will you check this
box; we’re applying for a grant.

The entire poem consists of 14 stanzas, all of which are written in couplets, except for the final line, which is a monostich.

2. Dante Alighieri, Inferno

Inferno is the first section of Dante’s long narrative poem The Divine Comedy, which describes his journey through Hell, Limbo, and Paradise. The entire poem is written in terza rima, which utilizes tercets that follow iambic meter and an ABA, BCB, CDC, etc., rhyme scheme.

Dante’s opening lines to Inferno are often quoted:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

While these lines are a tercet, the meter and rhyme requirements don’t appear to be there. This is because the poem was translated from Dante’s native Italian. In the original version, the poem fits the terza rima specifications, but the translator (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) choose not to preserve the rhyme or meter in his translation.

3. Marilyn Krisl, “Baghdad: The Disappeared Girls

Krisl’s poem is a sestina. This is the first stanza:

A girl outside the primary-schoolyard gate
has disappeared. Another—no one sees—
doesn’t come home. A black car ate a broken
girl’s shrill scream. Her father: She’s my jewel!
I curse the West. We didn’t ask for war.
Those men who come: don’t they have daughters?

In keeping with the sestina form, Krisl follows this sestet with five more and concludes her poem with a tercet envoi.

4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Coleridge’s long narrative poem tells the story of a Mariner who shoots an Albatross (a bird that symbolizes good luck) and suffers punishment for the bird’s murder. In the opening of the first section, Coleridge sets up the poem’s frame story by describing how Mariner stops the Wedding Guest on the street, desperate to tell his story:

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 poem is written in quatrains that follow an ABCB rhyme scheme.

5. Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee

Edgar Allan Poe primarily employed octets and sestets in this poem; however, the fifth stanza is a septet:

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee

Poe’s shifting between different stanza types gives the poem a melodic harmonious quality. The lone septet also adds emphasis to its content because it stands out from the other stanzas in the poem.

 

Further Resources on Stanza

 

Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary has a wonderful analysis of the term stanza.

Watch this video (or read its transcript) of Oregon State University’s Poet-in-Residence David Biespiel’s insightful lecture about stanzas.

Chuck Guilford shares some great advice about stanza breaks for Poetry Express.

 

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