Here’s what the Huitain poetry form is:
Huitains are eight-line poems that were mostly popular in 16th century Western Europe.
They are usually credited to France and generally consist of the first eight lines of the longer ballade form, though there has been some historical experimentation with the rhyme scheme and line lengths of the huitain.
So if you want to learn all about the Huitain poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s jump right in!
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Forms of Poetry: Huitain
The huitain is an interesting eight-line poem that has seen some mild variations and regional jumps over the course of its lifespan.
The most commonly accepted huitain has an ABABBCBC rhyme scheme and either eight or ten syllables, though eight is more historically accurate.
Sources generally credit the form to France, but there are also claims that it may have originated in Spain instead.
It is most closely linked to ballades.
Despite being relatively unheard of today, the huitain has seen enough experimentation to have a surprising amount of variation.
While the most basic interpretation of a huitain is heavily based on the first verse of a ballade, it’s important to remember that the form did achieve enough notoriety to inspire multiple variants across multiple nations.
Basic Properties of a Huitain
|France or Spain (uncertain)
|Mostly retired now but achieved widespread international popularity in the 1600s.
How Are Huitains Structured?
The huitain is an eight-line poem usually consisting of a single ballade stanza without the normally accompanying envoi (ending).
It has also been called the “Monk’s Tale stanza” in reference to Chaucer’s work of the same name.
Despite its inclusion in the ballade’s extended family, it should be understood that huitains have taken on a life of their own and have seen much experimentation outside of their original intended form.
While the huitain is usually accepted exclusively as an eight-line poem, there were examples of huitains being written with multiple eight-line verses.
The French created collaborative huitains, in which each poet in a sequence would add on a new octave to the poem.
This poem form typically has an expected rhyme scheme of ABABBCBC.
Other rhyme schemes using three end sounds have been accepted, but the first half consistently seems to stick to ABAB or ABBA.
The second half is more flexible but will generally repeat an end sound from the first stanza and introduce the third end sound.
The third end sound only appears twice.
The typical length for the lines is eight to ten syllables.
English variants, with their love of iambic pentameter, often default to ten syllables.
Fixed meter is generally expected as it was the norm of the era in both the formal verse of England and the formes fixes of France.
Example of a Huitain
A Sailor’s End
Avast ye fools upon the sea,
whose hands contend with wind and salt,
look up to death with tireless glee.
He’ll know at once it’s not your fault,
for sailors need to weave and vault
through all the trials life can bring
and weather each great new assault,
if just to hear the angels sing.
The above poem uses one of the expected rhyme schemes for the form and employs iambic tetrameter, keeping to the eight syllables per line of the original form.
Huitains are fairly simple in execution, but since they’ve seen so much variation it’s always hard to say for certain whether your take on the huitain is the “correct” version or not.
Regardless, scholars of poetry will generally understand that your interpretation is meant to be a huitain if they’re familiar with the form, as long as it shows some comprehension of the general patterns.
Casual modern readers, on the other hand, will rarely even know what a huitain is, much less be able to identify it.
Don’t stress yourself out trying to be historically accurate for the two or three huitain purists out there, but do make an attempt to respect the spirit of the form.
Ten-syllable lines were typically reserved for Englishmen, who were a bit hung up on ten-syllable lines, but you should employ meter in a huitain even in the eight-syllable form.
Tips for Writing a Huitain
Once you determine the rules you’ll be writing by, a huitain is only an intermediate challenge at worst.
For starters, you should try to narrow down which interpretation of the huitain you’re going to adhere to, or you could combine a few of them.
My general rules for the huitain are as follows, though they’re actually a mix of different trends the poem has gone through:
- Either eight or ten syllables per line. (Always isosyllabic.)
- A first stanza with a rhyme scheme of ABAB or ABBA.
- A second stanza with a rhyme scheme of XCXC or XCCX, where ‘X’ is either A or B from the first stanza.
This can lead to rhyme schemes such as ABABBCBC (the standard), ABBAACAC, ABBAACCA, or ABBABCCA.
I’m of the opinion that any one of these can sufficiently pay homage to the huitains of the past.
The huitain is a poem that has been adopted by Spaniards, Englishmen, and Frenchmen alike, which enjoyed brief periods of popularity in the 16th century through the 18th century.
While you could agonize over how to stay within the lines, the truth is that this poem has already become a bit of a mess, structurally speaking, since its adventures in Western Europe left it with quite the identity crisis.
When in doubt, you can focus on making the poem as similar to the beginning of a French ballade as possible, since no one will be able to dismiss it as a huitain at that point.
This would mean sticking strictly to the ABABBCBC rhyme scheme and eight syllables per line.
Focusing your attention on the ballade interpretation of the form will certainly add authenticity and credibility, but you do pay an opportunity cost since there are so many ways to reinvent this form. Decide for yourself how faithful you’ll be and to which era/region.
The length of each line provides a comfortable amount of space to set up the next end sound, but it is advised to choose easy end sounds when possible.
Be especially wary of the end sound that you’ll repeat four times (usually B) since there are some uncommon words in the English language that don’t even have three other rhyming words to match them.
I despise huitains, frankly.
I personally think a sonnet is just barely long enough to get to a meaningful conclusion while working within the constraints of both meter and rhyme scheme concurrently.
Trying to do the same in only eight lines is unnecessarily stressful.
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