A tercet is a unit of poetry that contains 3 lines. In other words, 3 line stanzas in poetry are called tercets. Tercets are a flexible form of the stanza as they have no set rhyme scheme or meter. Tercets have existed in many cultures throughout the centuries - from terza rima in medieval Italy to haikus in Japan.

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Table of contents

    Tercet: definition

    Tercet A unit of poetry that consists of three lines, forming a stanza or a complete poem.

    Tercet poems: key features

    Below are the key features of tercets.

    Tercet: stanza

    Stanza A group of lines that forms one section in a poem.

    Villanelle – A lyric poem consisting of nineteen lines, arranged as five tercets followed by one quatrain.

    The most important aspect of a tercet is that it has to be three lines in length. If a stanza has any more or any fewer lines, then it is no longer a tercet. Tercets can appear as individual stanzas or they can form one entire poem. Poems that contain tercets can also use other forms of the stanza, such as the villanelle, which uses both tercets and a quatrain.

    Tercet: rhyme scheme

    Rhyme Scheme The pattern of rhymes at the end of lines of poetry.

    There is no set rhyme scheme used throughout all tercets. Instead, different types of tercets will use their own rhyming patterns. Triplets follow a strict rhyme scheme of AAA, meaning that the end word of each line must perfectly rhyme with the other two. This is a key aspect of the triplet as it locks the three lines of the tercet together, for example, this can be seen in 'The Eagle' (1851) by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

    He clasps the crag with crooked hands; A

    Close to the sun in lonely lands, A

    Ring’d with the azure world, he stands. A

    Villanelles also have a unique rhyme scheme; however, this is different to the one found in triplets. Villanelles follow an ABA rhyme scheme, where the end word of the first and third lines of the tercet will rhyme. An example of this can be found in the poem, 'Do not go gentle into that good night.' (1947) by Dylan Thomas.

    Do not go gentle into that good night, AOld age should burn and rave at close of day; BRage, rage against the dying of the light. A

    Tercet: meter

    Meter The basic rhythmic structure of a verse or a line of poetry.

    There is also no one meter that is used in tercets. Instead, each type of tercet will have its own set meter. Haikus have a strict meter of five syllables, seven syllables and five syllables again. This is the defining feature of the haiku as its meter sets it apart from other types of tercet. An example of a haiku is 'The Summer Field' (1831) by Katsushika Hokusai - try and count out the syllables per line!

    As a soul

    I’ll stroll on the summer field

    For a past time.

    While there is no set meter for poems written in terza rima, many use iambic pentameter.

    Iambic Pentameter A line of poetry that consists of five metrical feet. Each foot will contain one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable.

    Iambic pentameter is a popular meter in English language poems as it copies English speech patterns. An example of a poem written in terza rima that uses iambic pentameter is 'Ode to the West Wind' (1820) by Percy Bysshe Shelley'.

    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 wintry bed

    Examples of tercets in poetry

    Here are some examples of tercets to study!

    Terza rima

    Terza rima An arrangement of tercets that are joined together by an interlocking rhyme scheme.

    Terza rima was first used by the poet Dante Alighieri in the 'Divine Comedy' (1308-1320). Poems written in terza rima have a strict rhyme scheme of ABABCBCDC. This means that the second line of the tercet will rhyme with the first and third lines of the following stanza. This rhyme scheme interlocks the stanzas together. Many English poems written in terza rima will use iambic pentameter, however, this is not a set meter. While terza rima is not used frequently in the 21st century, there are still notable examples from English literature, including Robert Frost's poem 'Acquainted with the Night' (1928).

    I have been one acquainted with the night. AI have walked out in rain—and back in rain. BI have outwalked the furthest city light. AI have looked down the saddest city lane. BI have passed by the watchman on his beat CAnd dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain. B


    Triplet Three lines of poetry that rhyme, they will also typically use the same meter.

    The triplet is a type of tercet where the final word of each line rhymes perfectly. The rhyme scheme here will have a configuration of AAA BBB. There is no set meter for this type of tercet. One example of a poem comprised only of triplets is Robert Herrick's poem, 'Upon Julia's Clothes' (1648).

    Whenas in silks my Julia goes, AThen, then (methinks) how sweetly flows AThat liquefaction of her clothes. ANext, when I cast mine eyes, and see BThat brave vibration each way free, BO how that glittering taketh me! B


    Haiku A type of poem that consists of seventeen syllables, arranged over three lines of poetry as five, seven and five.

    The haiku is a traditional form of poetry from Japan that employs a unique meter. There are seventeen syllables in a haiku that should be arranged as five-seven-five. Haikus do not have to rhyme as there is no set rhyme scheme. Haikus traditionally centre on themes of nature and the seasons. An example of a haiku is 'The Old Pond' (1686) by Matsuo Basho.

    An old silent pond . . .A frog jumps into the pondSplash! Silent again.


    Villanelle – A lyric poem consisting of nineteen lines, arranged as five tercets followed by one quatrain.

    A villanelle is a form of poetry that originated in 16th century France. Villanelle is a typically lyrical poem and uses enclosed tercets in their structure.

    Enclosed Tercet An enclosed tercet has a rhyme scheme where only the first and third lines rhyme.

    There are five tercets in a villanelle that will have a rhyme scheme configuration of ABA. In villanelles, the first line of the first tercet will be repeated in the last lines of the second and fourth tercets, as well as the penultimate line of the final stanza.

    The third line of the first tercet will be the final line of the third, fifth and final stanza. Villanelles were a popular form of poetry during the 19th and 20th centuries, with a notable example including Oscar Wilde's 'Theocritus: A Villanelle' (1890).

    O singer of Persephone!In the dim meadows desolateDost thou remember Sicily?Still through the ivy flits the beeWhere Amaryllis lies in state;O Singer of Persephone!

    Tercets: effect

    Tercets are not used as frequently in 21st-century poetry as they have been in the past. In spite of this, the form is still important and can be used to great effect. Tercets are useful as because of their short stanza length, they require the poet to be brief. In poems that are written in terza rima, tercets are a useful way to move the reader forward, as the short stanzas build momentum up throughout the poem.

    Tercet - Key takeaways

    • Tercets are units of poetry containing three lines.
    • There is no set meter or rhyme scheme for tercets.
    • There are different types of tercets including haikus, terza rima, triplets and villanelles.
    • Tercets are important as they allow the poet to be brief.
    • Tercets are used to build momentum throughout a poem.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Tercet

    What is the definition of a tercet?

    A tercet is a unit of poetry that consists of three lines, forming a stanza or a complete poem. 

    What is a tercet?

    A tercet is simply three lines of poetry that form a stanza or complete poem. There is no set rhyme scheme or meter. 

    What is a tercet example?

    An example of a tercet can be found in Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem, 'Ode to the West Wind' (1820). 

    What is the difference between a tercet and a triplet?

    A triplet is a particular type of tercet. The term tercet refers to any unit of poetry that consists of three lines. Whereas, a triplet is a tercet where each line rhymes perfectly together.

    What is the purpose of a tercet?

    The purpose of the tercet is to allow the poet to present an idea, image or concept briefly. This form also is used to move the reader forward in the poem, as the tercet builds momentum in the piece. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    If all three lines of poetry rhyme perfectly, what type of tercet is it?

    Where do haikus originate?

    How many syllables are in a haiku?


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