4.4 What is a Stanza in Poetry? – Definition & Examples

Feb 4, 2020 | Courses, Literature, Poetry

Want to find out what poems and houses have in common? In this lesson, we’ll explore the ‘rooms’ that stanzas create in poetry, drawing on examples from Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Frost, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Bishop, and Lord Byron.

Definition of a Stanza

Imagine that you’re visiting someone’s house for the first time, and they’re giving you a tour. As you go from room to room, you’ll notice that each room serves a different purpose and has a different feel to it. For example, the kitchen has a different atmosphere than the bathroom, and it certainly has a different purpose! Still, these rooms all work together to make the house complete.

In a sense, a poem is very similar to a house. Most poems are divided into stanzas, groups of lines, which function like the rooms of a house. In fact, stanza literally means ‘room’ in Italian. Traditionally, different kinds of stanzas are defined by their meter, the pattern of strong and weak syllables in each line, and rhyme scheme, the order in which rhymes occur. Of course, free verse, poetry that doesn’t use rhyme or meter, can also use stanzas to create pauses and organize the poem on the page.

Examples of Stanzas

Let’s start with couplets. A couplet is a two-line stanza that traditionally rhymes. Gwendolyn Brooks’ famous short poem ‘We Real Cool’ is written entirely in couplets:

‘We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.’

As you can see, every line except for the last one ends with the word ‘We.’ Starting a sentence or phrase on one line and ending it on the next is called enjambment. Because Brooks’ sentences cross over stanza breaks as well as line breaks, this poem also uses stanza enjambment.

Next up, we have three-line stanzas, which are known as tercets. Tercets play a key role in a traditional poetic form called terza rima, which uses a chain-like rhyme scheme (aba bcb cdc). Here is an example from Robert Frost’s poem ‘Acquainted with the Night’:

‘I have been one acquainted with the night. (a)
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain. (b)
I have outwalked the furthest city light. (a)

I have looked down the saddest city lane. (b)
I have passed by the watchman on his beat (c)
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.’ (b)

Another common stanza is the quatrain, which has four lines. One of the most popular forms of the quatrain is called the ballad stanza, which uses an abxb rhyme scheme (the third line doesn’t rhyme) and a rhythm called common meter. An easy way to check for common meter is to sing a stanza to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. Try it with the following stanza from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

‘The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, (a)
The furrow followed free; (b)
We were the first that ever burst (x)
Into that silent sea.’ (b)

Now, let’s take a look at the sestet, which has six lines. Although sestets appear often in poems with rhyme and meter, they also play an important role in a peculiar poetic form called the sestina. A sestina is a 39-line poem made of six sestets and one tercet. Instead of relying on rhyme and meter for organization, a sestina repeats the last words of the first six lines, or teleutons, also called teutons, in different patterns. Here are the first two stanzas of ‘Sestina’ by Elizabeth Bishop:

‘September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child . . .’

As you can see, the teleutons are the words ‘house,’ ‘grandmother,’ ‘child,’ ‘stove,’ ‘almanac,’ and ‘tears.’ The challenge (and the fun) of writing a sestina is finding a way to arrive at these words again and again without becoming repetitive.

Last but not least, let’s look at the octave, which has eight lines. One poetic form that uses octaves is ottava rima, which is made of stanzas with an abababcc rhyme scheme. If you examine the rhyme scheme closely, you’ll see that it functions like a sestet (ababab) followed by a rhyming couplet (cc). Here is an example of ottava rima from Lord Byron’s comic poem ‘Don Juan’:

‘When Bishop Berkeley said ‘there was no matter,’ (a)
And proved it — ’twas no matter what he said: (b)
They say his system ’tis in vain to batter, (a)
Too subtle for the airiest human head (b)
And yet who can believe it! I would shatter (a)
Gladly all matters down to stone or lead, (b)
Or adamant, to find the World a spirit, (c)
And wear my head, denying that I wear it.’ (c)

Lesson Summary

Most poems are divided into stanzas, groups of lines, which function like the rooms of a house. In fact, stanza literally means ‘room’ in Italian. Traditionally, different kinds of stanzas are defined by their meter, the pattern of strong and weak syllables in each line, and rhyme scheme, the order in which rhymes occur. Of course, free verse, poetry that doesn’t use rhyme or meter, can also use stanzas to create pauses and organize the poem on the page.

Five common stanzas are couplets (two lines), tercets (three lines), quatrains (four lines), sestets (six lines), and octaves (eight lines). Stanzas are also the building blocks of various poetic forms, such as terza rima, which uses a chain-like rhyme scheme (aba bcb cdc), ballad stanzas, which use an abxb rhyme scheme (the third line doesn’t rhyme), sestinas, which repeat the last words of the first six lines, or teleutons, also called teutons, in different patterns, and ottava rima, which are made of stanzas with an abababcc rhyme scheme.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson on stanzas in poetry ends, you could have the knowledge necessary to:

  • Identify the function of stanzas in poetry
  • Recognize five common stanzas and provide examples of each
  • Characterize the poetic forms of terza rima, ballad stanzas, sestinas, teleutons, and ottava rima
4.5 Similes, Metaphors & Personification in Poetry
4.3 How to Analyze Emotion in Poetry