Terza rima is a verse form using three-line stanzas with chain rhyme (in the pattern a-b-a, b-c-b, c-d-c, d-e-d, ...). There is no limit to the number of stanzas. Poems written in terza rima end with either a single line or couplet repeating the rhyme of the middle line of the final tercet; the two possible endings for the example above are d-e-d, e or d-e-d, e-e. There is no prescribed meter for terza rima, but in English, iambic pentameter is most common.
The first known use of terza rima is in Dante's Divina Commedia. In creating the form, Dante may have been influenced by the sirventes, a lyric form used by the ProvenÃ§al troubadours. The three-line pattern may have been intended to suggest the Holy Trinity. Inspired by Dante, other Italian poets, including Petrarch and Boccaccio, began using the form.
The first English poet to write in terza rima was Geoffrey Chaucer, who used it for his Complaint to His Lady. Although a difficult form to use in English because of the relative paucity of rhyme words available in a language which has, in comparison with Italian, a more complex phonology, terza rima has been used by Milton, Byron (in his Prophecy of Dante) and Shelley (in his Ode to the West Wind and The Triumph of Life). Thomas Hardy also used the form of meter in 'Friends Beyond' to interlink the characters and continue the flow of the poem. A number of 20th-century poets also employed the form. These include Archibald MacLeish, W. H. Auden, Andrew Cannon, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, Derek Walcott, Clark Ashton Smith, James Merrill, Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur. Edward Lowbury's adaptation of the form to six syllabled lines has been named piccola terza rima.
Not surprisingly, the form has also been used in translations of the Divina Commedia. Perhaps the most notable examples are Robert Pinsky's version of the Inferno, Laurence Binyon's version of the entire Divina Commedia, Dorothy L. Sayers's and the recent version by Peter Dale.
Two tercets from Chaucer's Complaint to his Lady:
- Hir name is Bountee set in womanhede
- Sadness in youthe and Beautee prydelees
- And Plesaunce under governaunce and drede;
- Hir surname is eek Faire Rewthelees
- The Wyse, yknit unto Good Aventure,
- That, for I love hir, she sleeth me giltelees.
A section from Shelley's Ode to the West Wind with a couplet ending:
- 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 wintery 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!
The first three stanzas of Thomas Hardy's 'Friends Beyond':
- William Dewy, Tranter Reuben, Farmer Ledlow late at plough,
- Robert's kin, and John's, and Ned's,
- And the Squire, and Lady Susan, lie in Mellstock churchyard now!
- 'Gone,' I call them, gone for good, that group of local hearts and heads;
- Yet at mothy curfew-tide,
- And at midnight when the noon-heat breathes it back from walls and leads,
- Theyâ've a way of whispering to me 'fellow-wight who yet abide'
- In the muted, measured note
- Of a ripple under archways, or a lone caveâ€™s stillicide:
- ↑ "Craftsmanship in Versification", in Wolfgang GÃ¶rtschacher's Contemporary Views on the Little Magazine Scene, Poetry Salzburg, 2000, p.549
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