Terza Rima Poetry Form: Set Your Emotions Afloat

Photo of author
Updated on

Here’s what the Terza Rima poetry form is:

The terza rima is a verse form of Italian origin consisting of tercets, or three-line stanzas.

Terza rima poems are a demanding form of poetry as it uses a complex rhyming scheme usually in iambic pentameter.

So if you want to learn all about the Terza Rima poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Keep reading!

Terza Rima Poem Type: Simply Explained (+ Examples)

Forms of Poetry: Terza Rima

woman in warm sweater reading a poetry book at home

Terza rima is a unique poetic form consisting entirely of tercets (three-line stanzas), with a unique rhyme pattern that connects across the stanzas.

While there are many different forms of poetry out there, tercets remain a fairly uncommon length for a stanza, partially because they can be awkward if handled poorly.

A poem written in terza rima gets part of its character from facing this unusual stanza length head-on, demanding that the poet master tercets before they can utilize the form properly.

Basic Properties of Terza Rima

Quill pen and inkwell resting on an old book.
Rhyme StructureStrict
MeterUsually metered, commonly Iambic pentameter
OriginItaly; Dante’s Divine Comedy
PopularityUncommon but persists in academia; occasionally experimented with by famous poets

How Is Terza Rima Structured?

Vintage books with bouquet of flowers.

The terza rima consists mostly of tercets in which the first and third lines of each stanza rhyme, with the middle line of the previous stanza defining the rhymed lines of the next stanza.

This allows terza rima to flow in a unique pattern that feels almost as if the poem is evolving into different rhyme schemes as time goes on, despite the pattern itself remaining the same throughout.

The poem will typically end with a single rhymed couplet or single line, utilizing the middle sound of the penultimate stanza.

So one possible example of a rhyme scheme would be ABA BCB CDC DED EE.

Note how the scheme steadily advances away from the first rhyme sounds as the poem goes on, losing old sounds and gaining new ones naturally as the poem progresses.

English variants of terza rima are commonly written in Iambic pentameter.

Dante’s own poem was hexasyllabic, and Iambic meter just happens to be a convention of English poetry that tends to carry over into English variants of many popular forms.

Example of a Terza Rima

Acquainted With the Night by Robert Frost

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

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

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Note Frost’s immediate use of repetition in the opening stanzas.

The repetitions of “I have” further bring the reader’s attention to the sense of repetition within the poem and by the time these repetitions fade, the rhyme scheme will have taken hold, maintaining the effect.

The use of past tense, as shown in the example, does a good job of playing to the strengths of terza rima.

This is a form that naturally changes as the poem goes on, despite never leaving the comfort of a set pattern.

It is this juxtaposition of pattern and progress that makes the formwork so well with reminiscence and potentially obsessive lines of thought.

Take note that the poem’s rhyme scheme is ABA BCB CDC DED EE, exactly the same rhyme scheme as suggested further above.

This is the single most common length for terza rima and is sometimes referred to as a terza rima sonnet since it does happen to be 14 lines.

Naturally, this name has led to some debate, since poets are very particular about labeling forms, but it’s worth remembering that 14 lines just happens to be a very solid length for terza rima, generally speaking.

In fact, there is a common misconception that terza rima must be 14 lines.

This is not actually true as the form refers to the pattern of the poem rather than the length, but it is worth knowing that you can find yourself in a debate no matter which stance you take.

Writers do love to argue about technicalities, after all.

History of Terza Rima

history of terza rima

The terza rima can be directly traced to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, originally written in Italian.

The translation of terza rima literally means “third rhyme.”

The form has since been imitated by many famous poets such as Petrarch, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Lord Byron.

The form is not nearly as omnipresent as sonnets or haikus in popular culture and its most significant entry remains the Divine Comedy to this day.

Many translations of the Divine Comedy attempt to maintain terza rima, in order to exemplify the style the work is known for.

This puts terza rima in a rare place among poetic forms, since very few forms stay so closely tied to the poet and work who first originated the form.

Regardless, the form has seen enough experimentation by big names in poetry to be a recognizable structure for dedicated poetry lovers and some rare variations exist, such as piccolo terza rima, utilizing six syllables per line.

Tips for Writing Terza Rima

Female hand writing on a blank notebook at coffee table

First and foremost, use end sounds that are easy to rhyme with.

Since each ending sound will be repeated a minimum of three times, it’s important to make sure each line ends with a word that you can comfortably rhyme multiple times.

As such, it may be in your best interest to end in short words (one or two syllables) until you feel confident enough to utilize more.

Remember that you can always reshuffle the syntax of a sentence or replace a few words here and there to make a line work, so do not be afraid to experiment a bit.

Make sure you read the poems out loud, both while you write and during the editing process.

The terza rima has natural music to it that you should be able to hear when you read the poem aloud.

If there’s no sense of rhythm or pattern when you hear the poem, then odds are something has gone wrong.

It’s always advisable to use meter in terza rima.

While English meter often defaults to Iambic pentameter, it is acceptable to try out different meters, but rhythm is a part of the form’s innate nature, so it’s better to lean into the form’s strengths than to completely disregard them.

Finally, you may want to choose a topic that makes sense for the form.

This verse lends itself rather well to the narrative, as each tercet is just enough space for a few more details that connect to the previous one, potentially building into a scene or story.

Of course, a practiced hand can accommodate any topic in any form, so take this last tip with a grain of salt.

Poet’s Note

Pen lays on paper.

This term falls into the category of “a famous person coined a phrase and everyone went along with it.”

If you ever think modern celebrity worship is ridiculous, just remember that a large chunk of literature’s history has been defined by posthumous celebrity worship since the dawn of language.

Comprehensive Collection of Poetry Forms: Craft Words Into Art

Vintage poetry book on wooden platform

Dare to traverse the entire spectrum of poetic forms, from the commonplace to the extraordinary?

Venture from the quintessential Sonnet to the elusive Mistress Bradstreet stanza, right through to the daunting complexity of Cro Cumaisc Etir Casbairdni Ocus Lethrannaigecht.

For those with a zeal to encounter the full breadth of poetry’s forms, this invitation is yours.

Start exploring the vast universe of poetic ingenuity with our comprehensive array of poetry forms right now!