Poetry Index


rhythm: the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line.
meter: the number of feet in a line.
scansion: Describing the rhythms of poetry by dividing the lines into feet, marking the locations of stressed and unstressed syllables, and counting the syllables.

Thus, when we describe the rhythm of a poem, we “scan” the poem and mark the stresses (/) and absences of stress (^) and count the number of feet.

In English, the major feet are:

iamb (^/)
^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ / ^ /
The falling out of faithful friends, renewing is of love
trochee (/^)
/ ^ / ^ / ^ / ^
Double, double toil and trouble
anapest (^^/)
^ ^ / ^ ^ / ^ ^ /
I am monarch of all I survey
dactyl (/^^)
/ ^ ^ / ^^
Take her up tenderly
spondee (//)
pyrrhic (^^)

Iambic and anapestic meters are called rising meters because their movement rises from unstressed syllable to stressed; trochaic and dactylic meters are called falling. In the twentieth century, the bouncing meters–anapestic and dactylic–have been used more often for comic verse than for serious poetry.

Spondee and pyrrhic are called feet, even though they contain only one kind of stressed syllable. They are never used as the sole meter of a poem; if they were, it would be like the steady impact of nails being hammered into a board–no pleasure to hear or dance to. But inserted now and then, they can lend emphasis and variety to a meter, as Yeats well knew when he broke up the predominantly iambic rhythm of “Who Goes With Fergus?” with the line,

^ ^ / / ^ ^ / /
And the white breast of the dim sea,


Alliterative verse

Verse tradition stemming from the Germanic lands and evidenced in Anglo-Saxon epics and Icelandic sagas. The alliterative line was normally written in two halves – with each half containing two strongly stressed syllables. Of the four stressed syllables two, three or even four would begin with the same sound. During the 14th century in England there was an alliterative revival which produced works such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland.


The ballad stanza is a quatrain where the second and fourth lines rhyme. La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats is in ballad form. It usually features alternating four-stress and three-stress lines.   The lines alternate between 8 and 6 syllables. Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a ballad.

Blank verse

Type of poetry, distinguished by having a regular meter, but no rhyme. In English, the meter most commonly used with blank verse has been iambic pentameter. It is widely associated with Shakespeare and Milton’s Paradise Lost. It was first used by the Earl of Surrey around 1540.

Bob and the wheel

The mechanism used to end stanzas in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It consists of a short line (bob), followed by a trimeter quatrain (wheel).

Free verse

Term describing various styles of poetry that are not written using strict meter or rhyme, but that still are recognizable as ‘poetry’ by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another that readers can perceive to be part of a coherent whole. Walt Whitman was a practitioner of free verse.

Heroic couplets

Rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter lines. You should associate heroic couplets almost exclusively with Restoration verse. Example: Pope’s Rape of the Lock.


Hudibrastic is a type of English verse named for Samuel Butler‘s Hudibras of 1672. For the poem, Butler invented a mock-heroic verse structure. Instead of pentameter, the lines were written in iambic tetrameter. The rhyme scheme is the same as in heroic verse (aa, bb, cc, dd, etc.).

Ottava rima

The ottava rima stanza in English consists of eight iambic lines, usually iambic pentameters. Each stanza consists of three rhymes following the rhyme scheme a-b-a-b-a-b-c-c. Byron’s Don Juan and Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” are examples.

Rhyme royal

The rhyme royal stanza consists of seven lines, usually in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b-c-c. Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde” is a good example.


Consists of thirty-nine lines; six six-line stanzas, usually ending with a triplet. It is an uncommon verse form. “Ye Goatherd Gods” from Sidney’s Arcadia is the only example that comes to mind.

Spensarian stanza

A fixed verse form invented by Edmund Spenser for his epic poem The Faerie Queene. Each verse contains nine lines in total: eight lines of iambic pentameter, with five feet, followed by a single line of iambic hexameter, an “alexandrine,” with six. The rhyme scheme of these lines is “ababbcbcc.” Shelley’s elegy “Adonais” and Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Progress” both employ the Spensarian stanza.

Terza rima

A three-line stanza using chain rhyme in the pattern a-b-a, b-c-b, c-d-c, d-e-d, etc. Terza rima is especially associated with Dante’s Divine Comedy. See also “Ode to the West Wind” by Shelley.


The essence of the form is its distinctive pattern of rhyme and repetition, with only two rhyme-sounds (“a” and “b”) and two alternating refrains that resolve into a concluding couplet.Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is a good example. Stephen Dedalus also writes one in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.



There are two really important things to know about the Italian sonnet:

rhyme scheme: a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a, c-d-e, c-d-e.
Broken up into an octet and a sestet.

The chance of seeing an Italian sonnet on the exam is not great.

The major Italian sonneteers included Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and Guido Cavalcanti (c. 1250–1300), but the most famous early sonneteer was Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374).

In its original form, the Italian sonnet was divided into an octave followed by a sestet in the topic or tone of the sonnet. The octave stated a proposition and the sestet stated its solution with a clear break between the two. Typically, the ninth line created a “turn” or volta, which signaled the move from proposition to resolution. Even in sonnets that don’t strictly follow the problem/resolution structure, the ninth line still often marks a “turn” by signalling a change in the tone, mood, or stance of the poem.

Giacomo da Lentini octave rhymed a-b-a-b, a-b-a-b it became later a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a. For the sestet there were two different possibilities, c-d-e-c-d-e and c-d-c-c-d-c. In time, other variants on this rhyming scheme were introduced.

The first known sonnets in English, written by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, used this Italian scheme, as did sonnets by later English poets including John MiltonThomas GrayWilliam Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. However, these poets tended to ignore the strict logical structure of proposition and solution. (ETS may refer to sonnets with an Italian form but not break between the octet and sestet as a “Miltonic sonnet”).

This example, On His Being Arrived to the Age of Twenty-three by Milton, gives a sense of the Italian Form:

How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, (a)
Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year! (b)
My hasting days fly on with full career, (b)
But my late spring no bud or blossom shew’th. (a)
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth, (a)
That I to manhood am arrived so near, (b)
And inward ripeness doth much less appear, (b)
That some more timely-happy spirits indu’th. (a)
Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow, (c)
It shall be still in strictest measure even (d)
To that same lot, however mean or high, (e)
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven. (d)
All is, if I have grace to use it so, (c)
As ever in my great Task-master’s eye. (e)

English (or Shakespearean)

The major features:

It is comprised of three quatrains and a final couplet in iambic pentameter. 
Rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg.
Often, the beginning of the third quatrain marks the “turn”, or the line in which the poem’s mood shifts and the poet expresses a revelation or epiphany.

This example, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, illustrates the form:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken.
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.


The sonnet was introduced into English by Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century. His sonnets and those of his contemporary the Earl of Surrey were chiefly translations from the Italian of Petrarch and the French of Ronsard and others. Sir Philip Sidney’s sequence Astrophel and Stella (1591) started a tremendous vogue for sonnet sequences: the next two decades saw sonnet sequences by William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, Fulke Greville, William Drummond of Hawthornden, and many others.These sonnets were all essentially inspired by the Petrarchan tradition, and generally treat of the poet’s love for some woman; the exception is Shakespeare’s sequence. In the 17th century, the sonnet was adapted to other purposes, with John Donne and George Herbert writing religious sonnets, and John Milton using the sonnet as a general meditative poem. Both the Shakespearean and Petrarchan rhyme schemes were popular throughout this period, as well as many variants.
The fashion for the sonnet went out with the Restoration, and hardly any sonnets were written between 1670 and Wordsworth’s time.


Major features:

three quatrains and a final rhyming couplet in iambic pentameter
rhyme scheme: abab bcbc cdcd ee.

In a Spenserian sonnet there does not appear to be a requirement that the initial octet sets up a problem which the closing sestet answers as is the case with a Shakespearean sonnet. Instead, the form is treated as three quatrains connected by the interlocking rhyme scheme and followed by a couplet. The linked rhymes of his quatrains suggest the linked rhymes of such Italian forms as terza rima.

This example, Sonnet 1 from Spencer‘s Amoretti, illustrates the form:

Happy ye leaves! when as those lily hands,
Which hold my life in their dead doing might,
Shall handle you, and hold in love’s soft bands,
Like captives trembling at the victor’s sight.
And happy lines! on which, with starry light,
Those lamping eyes will deign sometimes to look,
And read the sorrows of my dying sprite,
Written with tears in heart’s close bleeding book.
And happy rhymes! bathed in the sacred brook
Of Helicon, whence she derived is,
When ye behold that angel’s blessed look,
My soul’s long lacked food, my heaven’s bliss.
Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone,
Whom if ye please, I care for other none.


The curtal sonnet is a form invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and used in three of his poems.

It is an eleven-line (or, more accurately, ten-and-a-half-line) sonnet, but rather than the first eleven lines of a standard sonnet it consists of precisely ¾ of the structure of a Petrarchan sonnet shrunk proportionally, so that the octave of a sonnet becomes a sestet and the sestet a quatrain plus an additional “tail piece.” “Pied Beauty” is an example.

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