Poetic Form

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!

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Table of contents

    Poetic form: definition

    The definition of poetic form is that it is the structure of the poem. We can measure poetic form by its use of line, rhyme and meter. The categorisation of poetic forms also takes into account the length of stanzas and a poem's use of repetition.

    All poems have a form. Sometimes, poems have strict forms like the haiku and the limerick. Other times, forms like free verse don't follow any strict rules because they 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.

    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.

    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)
    • The poem's use of meter

    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

    Examples of identifying poetic forms by their lines include:

    • 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 and poetic form, it is likely that they will mention rhyming and rhyme schemes.

    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.


    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

    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' (1794) by William Blake uses terminal rhyme, using the words bright and night at the end of corresponding lines.

    Internal rhyme

    Internal rhyme is when there are two rhyming words within a single line, here is an example from the poem 'The Raven' (1845) by Edgar Allen Poe.

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

    Slant rhyme

    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 yhr Thing with Feathers' (1891).

    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:

    • Elizabethan sonnets
    • Limericks
    • Villanelles

    Other poetry forms can contain rhyme, but poets have the freedom to explore the rhymes they use.

    Poetic form: list of meters

    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. Meter is then crucial for analysing poetic forms.

    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

    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.

    Use of meter

    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.

    Modern poetry features less meter than the more traditional forms. This is partly because differences in dialect and a speaker's use of language make the meter difficult to define.

    Counting feet in poetic forms

    Another thing to consider when looking at meter is the line length and the 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.

    Here are the terms used for the number of feet in a line:

    Number of feetMetrical termNumber of feetMetrical term

    Examples of feet in poetic forms

    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.

    Poetic form: examples

    Now we are familiar with how a poem is structured we can look at examples of poetic forms 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 poetic form 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.


    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).


    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.


    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.


    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 example of the poetic form 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.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Poetic Form

    What is poetic form?

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

    What are the different types of poetic form?

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

    What is an example of a poetic form?

    Some examples of the poetic form could be:

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

    How can we identify a poem's form?

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

    How is poetry form different to poetic structure?

    Poetry forms are types of poems that can either follow strict rules of structure, like the haiku or limerick, or have no clear structure but still follow some internal rule of form, like free verse.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which type of couplet is the following: 'Why rove my thoughts beyond this last retreat?Why feels my heart its long-forgotten heat?'

    Which type of couplet is the following:'Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow.That I shall say good night till it be morrow.'

    How many lines are in a heroic couplet?


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