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Poetic Form

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English Literature

With over 150 different poetic forms and a seemingly endless number of terms for rhyme, meter and stanzas, it can be daunting to define what poetic form is. Here we will help explain some of the key terms and look at examples of important poetic terms to ease your mind!

Poetic Form: definition

Poetic form is the structure of the poem. By this we mean its use of line, rhyme and meter. It also takes into account the length of stanzas and a poem's use of repetition. All poems have a form, sometimes it is idiosyncratic to the poem itself. Other times the poem uses widely known forms of poetry. Forms like the haiku and the limerick have strict rules a poem must adhere to.

A poem's form is not always a strict set of rules to follow, free verse, for example, give poets relative freedom to play with the structure of their poems. Other forms will only allow a certain number of lines, like the sonnet or the haiku, while others require the use of strict meter and syllables. It can seem as if there is a lot to consider when looking at poetic form, but the key three themes to consider are:

  • Lineation and stanza
  • Rhyme scheme (if any)
  • A poem's use of meter

Poetry Form and structure

Poetic form is the way a poem is structured and organised. Poetry forms are different types of poems that have structural rules. Here we will look at the key themes and terms for poetic form.

Poetic Form: lineation and stanza

Lineation is the consideration of line breaks and stanza, the length of the lines and the number of lines in a stanza. A line's length can be determined by the number of syllables, if a poem uses meter, or if the poem contains a specific rhyme scheme.

A stanza would usually contain a singular idea, much like a paragraph in prose. Forms of poetry, such as villanelle and sonnet have strict rules when looking at their structural organisation. Their stanzas are traditionally required to have a set number of lines, such as a quatrain, tercet or couplet.

Number of linesStanza nameNumber of linesStanza name
1Monostich6Sestet
2Couplet7Septet
3Tercet8Octave
4Quatrain9Nonet
5Quintain10Dizain

The couplet and quatrain are commonly used in the Elizabethan sonnet. A villanelle poem would consist of five tercets and a quatrain.

Poetic Form: rhyme scheme

When a lot of people are asked about poetry, it is likely that they will mention rhyming. Rhyming is a combination of words that sound alike, words like light and night are often used in traditional poetry. Rhyme was originally used to help poets or bards recite poems, giving them cues when presenting poetry orally. Rhyme is used less frequently in contemporary poetry, which could be a result of rising literacy levels from the 19th century. From the 19th century, poems would be read more often than heard.

Rhyme

There are many types of rhyme. We will look at three main examples that would likely be seen in poetry. Let's look at terminal rhyme, internal rhyme and slant rhyme. Terminal rhyme (sometimes known as end rhyme) is the most familiar form, this is when the last word in a line rhymes.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;

This excerpt from 'The Tyger' by William Blake uses terminal rhyme, using the words bright and night at the end of corresponding lines. Internal rhyme is when there are two rhyming words within a single line, here is an example from the poem 'The raven' by Edgar Allen Poe.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Finally, slant rhyme is when two words are used together that sound similar, but are not identical. Sometimes, these words may have similar consonant sounds or vowel sounds, but never both, like worm and swarm. As you can see the consonant sounds are similar yet the vowels are different. This is an example from Emily Dickenson's 'Hope is a Thing with Feathers'.

Hope is a thing with feathers

that perches on the soul

and sings the tune without the words

and never stops at all

Rhyme scheme

We use the term rhyme scheme to refer to the combination of rhymes used, and to describe their organisation. It can be baffling when you think of all the varieties of stanza, so to keep it simple let's look at the quatrain. As we know a quatrain is a stanza that contains four lines, if each of those lines ended in the same rhyme, it would be described as AAAA.

If the quatrain had alternating rhymes, that's to say that every other line would end in the same rhyme, it would be described as ABAB. Here is an example from Robert Frost's 'Neither Out Far, Or In Deep' (1936).

The people along the sand AAll turn and look one way. BThey turn their back on the land. AThey look at the sea all day. B

If the quatrain's first and last lines rhyme and its middle lines have a different rhyme, it would be described as ABBA. It can seem confusing, but if you replace the matching letters with rhyming words it may help! Forms of poetry that require a strict rhyme scheme are the Elizabethan sonnet, limericks and villanelle poems. Other poetry forms can contain rhyme, but poets have the freedom to explore the rhymes they use.

Poetic Form: use of meter

Meter is a reference to the use of syllables and their use in a poem. The emphasis on the sound a syllable makes is either stressed or unstressed. If we look at the word 'ahead', it has two syllables, the first 'a' sound is unstressed and the 'head' sound is stressed. Meter, like rhyme, was used as a device to help poets recite a poem. Meter can be used to give a poem its rhythm and aid recital.

Modern poetry features less meter than the more traditional forms. This is partly because differences in dialect and a speaker's use of language makes meter difficult to define. Even ignoring differences in dialect, it can still be difficult to detect meter in poetry. There are many different types of meter in poetry, perhaps its most famous being the iambic pentameter.

Poetry forms like blank verse and the traditional sonnet use strict forms of meter. The meter of a poem will determine a poem's line length. When looking at meter we would look at the number of unstressed/stressed syllables, known as iambs.

Here we will look at the more common forms of meter:

MeterSyllable stressesexample
Iambunstressed - stresseda-head
Trocheestressed - unstressedsam-ple
Pyrrhicunstressed - unstressedun-der
Spondeestressed - stressedcow-boy
Dactylstressed - unstressed - unstressedfresh-en-er
Anapestunstressed - unstressed - stressedun-der-stand
Amphibrachunstressed - stressed - unstressedfla-min-go

Another thing to consider when looking at meter is the line length and its number of feet. A foot would be the combination of unstressed/stressed syllables in a line. For example, a poetic line that contains one iamb will have two syllables and one foot. If a poem has two iambs it would contain four syllables and two feet.

Iambic pentameter is the most commonly used meter, notably by William Shakespeare. It is called iambic pentamer because it has five feet. This means that a line of iambic pentameter would contain five iambs and ten syllables. If this seems confusing, let's look at some examples.

Here is the opening line from William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 (1609);

Shall I compare thee to a sum mer's day?"

1 2 3 4 5

Here you see each foot numbered. There are five in total, which means five iambs, the first is "Shall I". We can see that there are five pairs of unstressed/stressed syllables. Let's look at this example of iambic tetrameter, which uses four feet per line.

William Wordsworth 'I wandered, lonely as a cloud' (1807).

I wand ered, lone ly as a cloud

1 2 3 4

There are four feet, which also means there are four iambs. The number of feet is not specific to iambs, it is used for all forms of meter. Here are the terms used for the number of feet in a line:

Number of feetMetrical termNumber of feetMetrical term
onemonometerfivepentameter
twodimetersixhexameter
threetrimetersevenheptameter
fourtetrametereightoctameter

Poetic Form: list of examples

Now we are familiar with how a poem is structured we can look at those forms of poetry which have strict structural rules.

The sonnet

Traditionally consisting of 14 lines and often on the subject of love, the sonnet is one of the oldest poetry forms. The word sonnet has its roots in the Latin word 'souno', meaning sound. There are two types of the traditional sonnet, the Petrarchan and the Elizabethan. Petrarchan sonnets are 14 lines that are split into 2 stanzas, an octave and a sestet. The Elizabethan sonnet's 14 lines are split into 3 quatrains and a couplet with an alternate rhyme scheme of ABAB.

An example of the Petrarchan sonnet is 'When I Consider How My Light is Spent' (1673) by John Milton. An example of an Elizabethan sonnet is 'Sonnet 18'(1609) by William Shakespeare.


Villanelle

A villanelle poem contains nineteen lines divided into five tercets and ends with a quatrain. The tercets have a rhyme scheme of ABA while the quatrain has a rhyme scheme of ABAA. A famous example of a villanelle poem would be Dylan Thomas' 'Do Not Go Gentle into that Goodnight' (1951).

Ballad

Ballads are poems that tell a narrative and traditionally would be sung. Ballads would usually consist of quatrains that used an alternate rhyme scheme of ABCB. Although this structure was popular in the past it is not necessary for ballads to follow these rules. 'La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad' (1819) by John Keats is a famous example of the ballad form.

Haiku

The haiku is a form of poetry from Japan. Haikus have strict rules regarding their syllables and alienation. They consist of three lines and each line has a set number of syllables. The first and last lines contain 5 syllables and the second has 7. With their short constricted form, haikus are used often to explore nature. An example of a haiku would be 'A World of Dew' (18th century) by Kobayashi Issa.

Limerick

A poetry form that uses five lines in a single stanza, a quintain. Limerick poems have a rhyme scheme of AABBA. They are usually comedic in nature and would tell short tales or character descriptions. Edward Lear wrote many limericks, the most famous being 'There Was an Old Man with a Beard' (1846).

Poetic Form - Key takeaways

  • Poetic form is the structure of a poem and its use of line, rhyme and meter.
  • Some forms of poetry follow strict rules, such as the sonnet and the villanelle.
  • Lineation is the organisation and length of line and stanza, including line breaks the use of punctuation.
  • Meter is a reference to the emphasis and sound of syllables in a single line.
  • A poem's rhyme scheme is the organisation of its rhymes within a stanza.

Poetic Form

Poetic form is the structure of a poem and its use of line, rhyme and meter.

The different types of poetic form are lineation, rhyme scheme and meter.

A poetry form example could be

  • sonnet
  • ballad
  • villanelle
  • haiku
  • limerick
  • and many more!

We identify a poem's forms by looking at its use of rhyme, line and meter.

Poetry forms are types of poems that follow strict rules of structure, like the haiku or limerick.

Final Poetic Form Quiz

Question

How is villanelle pronounced?

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villanelle is pronounced: vil-uh-nell.

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What is the etymology of villanelle?

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Answer

It derives from the Italian word villanella, meaning a rustic or rural song.



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How does a villanelle make use of repetition?


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It contains two refrains that appear in every stanza. 

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How does the form of a villanelle determine its length? 


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Answer

They typically have 19 lines which are separated into five tercets, with a quatrain (four lines) as the sixth stanza.

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What is the standard rhyme scheme of a villanelle?


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The tercets follow an ABA rhyme scheme and the final stanza has an ABAA rhyme scheme.

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How many refrains does a villanelle have?


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2

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True or false: all villanelles must follow the established form.


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False. Many poets often choose to make minor changes to villanelles, usually to the refrains.

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True or false: villanelles were originally simple ballad-like songs with no strict form.


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True. Before the modern-day form, they didn’t actually have an established structure.

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From what poem did the modern form of the villanelle originate?


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Answer

Jean Passerat's poem titled 'Villanelle' (1606).

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What artistic movement lead to villanelles gaining popularity in the late 20th century.


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The new formalism movement. 

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True or false: the first four stanzas in a villanelle are tercets.


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False. The first five stanzas are tercets.

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True or false: the final stanza in a villanelle is a couplet.


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False. The final stanza is a quatrain.

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True or false: poets who were adherents to the modernist artistic movement favoured the villanelle.


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False. They thought that villanelle was an outdated form of poetry that limited creativity. 



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True or false: the villanelle is a fixed verse form.


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True.

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True or false: Theodore Roethke wrote one of the first villanelles in English.


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True.   

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What is the purpose of a stanza?

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A stanza separates groups of lines in a poem.

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True or false: Stanzas are always separated by line breaks.

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False. Stanzas can also be separated by meter or rhyme scheme.

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True or false: stanzas in formal verse doesn’t have a meter or rhyme scheme.


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False. Stanzas in formal verse follow a strict meter and rhyme scheme.

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How many lines are a couplet made up of?


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2

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True or false: A quatrain contains three lines.


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False: A quatrain is made up of four lines.

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What type of stanza is most commonly used in ballads?


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Quatrains are most commonly used in ballads.

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What type of stanza is a terza rima based on?


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Terza rima is based on tercets

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True or false: The term strophe is only appropriate when a poem has inconsistent line groupings.


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True.

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True or false: Stanzas can refer to inconsistent and consistent line groupings in poetry.


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True.    

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True or false: An isometric stanza has the same meter in every line.


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True 

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What is a ballad stanza?

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A type of four-line stanza that generally uses the ABCB rhyme scheme.

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What is a hetorometric stanza?

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A type of stanza where every line has a different length.

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What is an octave?

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A stanza with eight lines in iambic pentameter.

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How many lines does a sestet contain?

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six.

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What is an alternative name for a cinquain?

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A Quintain

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True or false: ballads are a fairly new poetic form.

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 False. Ballads are one of the oldest poetic forms in English.

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True or false: a poem must follow one strict form to be considered a ballad.

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False. There are many different types of ballads and there isn't one strict definition.

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What is the most common rhyme scheme used in ballads?


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ABCB

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True or false: ballads were traditionally an oral tradition.


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True. Before ballads were written as poetry, it was common for them to be sung as a musical form.

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Where does the word ballad come from?


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It comes from an old French word balade, which means a song that people dance to.


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What is a ballad meter? 


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Alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter

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What are broadside ballads?


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Ballads were printed on cheap sheets of paper and used to spread the news in the local community. 


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True or false: Broadside ballads developed as a result of the printing press.


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True. The printing press made it possible for ballads to be written and spread among the local community.

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True or false: Broadside ballads enabled the early introduction of journalism


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True. People would communicate news in their local communities by writing and disseminating broadside ballads. 

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What is the contemporary meaning of a ballad?


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Answer

Modern ballads are referred to as slow love songs and are also known as sentimental ballads.

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What is the name of the movement that developed the literary ballad.


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Answer

Romanticism

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During what time period did the literary ballad develop?


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Literary ballads first appeared in the 18th century.

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Question

What is the main theme of 'Annabel Lee' by Edgar Allan Poe?


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The main theme of the poem is tragic love.

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What is the main theme of 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' by Oscar Wilde?


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The main theme is death and loss. 

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During what time period was the ballad first introduced.


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The 14th century.

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What is a Petrarchan sonnet?

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A Petrarchan sonnet is a type of sonnet that is composed of one octave and one sestet.

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How many lines are in a Petrarchan sonnet?

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There are fourteen lines in a Petrarchan sonnet. 

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What is another name for the Petrarchan sonnet? 

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Petrarchan sonnets are sometimes referred to as Italian sonnets.

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How many stanzas are there in a Petrarchan sonnet?


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2

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Who is the Petrarchan sonnet named after?

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The Petrarchan sonnet is named after Francesco Petrarca.

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