Definition of Quatrain
A quatrain is a stanza in a poem that has exactly four lines. Some quatrains comprise entire poems, while others are part of a larger structure. Quatrains usually use some form of rhyme scheme, especially the following forms: AAAA, AABB, ABAB, and ABBA. Lines in quatrain can be any length and with any meter, but there is usually a regular rhythm to the lines as well. There are examples of quatrains in many eras and cultures, from Ancient Greece and China to Renaissance England and Iran to contemporary literature.
Though there are quatrain examples from around the world, the word quatrain that we use in English comes from French word for four, quatre. This, in turn, comes from Latin quattuor. Thus, the definition of quatrain most certainly existed before the word that we now use.
Forms of Quatrain
- Heroic Stanza or Elegiac Stanza: This type of quatrain is written in iambic pentameter and has the rhyme scheme of either ABAB or AABB.
- Ruba’i: The ruba’i, or rubaiyat in plural form, is a Persian quatrain. The rhyme scheme and meter that are used in the four lines of a ruba’i quatrain are very specific. In English, the rhyme scheme usually used to qualify as a ruba’i is AABA. This comes from the English language poet Edward Fitzgerald, who translated the book The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. See Example #3 below.
- Ballad Meter: Ballad stanzas are quatrains that alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. The rhyme scheme of the ballad meter is generally ABCB.
- Shairi or Rustavelian Quatrain: This quatrain has a rhyme scheme of AAAA, also known as monorhymed. It comes from the country of Georgia, and has four lines of sixteen syllables each. The name Rustavelian comes from the Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli. See Example #1.
- Shichigon-zekku (Japanese) or Qiyan jueju (Chinese): This example of quatrain comes from Classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. There are seven characters in each of four lines, and rhyme and meter are important aspects of this poetic form. In addition, each line provides a specific role in the development of the poem, as we will see below in Example #2.
- Decasyllabic quatrain: This type of quatrain has four lines, each of which has ten syllables with a rhyme scheme of either AABB or ABAB. If written in iambic pentameter, a decasyllabic quatrain would also qualify as the heroic or elegiac stanza.
Common Examples of Quatrain
Many famous songs have verses with four lines in them. These are examples of quatrains, though in song form. Here are some lyrics that fall into a quatrain form:
Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.
(“Danny Boy,” traditional Irish folk song)
Who knows how long I’ve loved you
You know I love you still
Will I wait a lonely lifetime
If you want me to, I will
(“I Will” by The Beatles)
Well, it’s one for the money
Two for the show
Three to get ready
Now go, cat, go
(“Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis Presley)
The heart is a bloom
Shoots up through the stony ground
There’s no room
No space to rent in this town
(“Beautiful Day” by U2)
Significance of Quatrain in Literature
From the prevalence of different forms of quatrains in many different literary traditions, it is clear to see that quatrains have been a building block of poetry for a large part of human history. Though it has been so popular for many millennia and in many different cultures, there is no unified theory about why the quatrain is so fundamental to poetry. It could be that its brevity makes the form easier to memorize, which was important in the early days of oral storytelling and the tradition of nomadic storytellers later on, such as troubadours. Examples of quatrains also show that they can be just long enough to get an entire sublime concept across to the reader or audience member, such as in the tradition of Shichigon-zekku poetry.
Examples of Quatrain in Literature
I sing of the lion whom the use of lance, shield and sword adorns,
Of Tamar, the Queen of Queens, the ruby-cheeked and jet-haired.
How shall I dare pay tribute to her in praiseworthy verses,
Whom to look upon is to feast upon the choicest of honey?
(“The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” by Shota Rustaveli, trans. Venera Urushadze)
Shota Rustaveli’s medieval epic poem “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin,” is perhaps the most famous contribution to Georgian literature ever written. Rustavelia wrote his poem in one hundred and ten stanzas, each one an example of quatrain. In traditional shairi, or Rustavelian quatrain, each line has sixteen syllables and there is a caesura between the eighth and ninth syllable of each line.The end of each of the four lines rhyme in the original Georgian verse. While it is difficult in translation to keep all of these components intact, the above excerpt does a good job of echoing the epic nature of the imagery and length of line.
This great peak above the clouds, where hermit-wizards came for sport
The deep pools of whose caverns holy dragons have inhabited from old
The snow is like white silk, the rising smoke like a handle
A great white fan inverted, in the heavens above the eastern sea
(“Mount Fuji” by Ishikawa Jozan)
This is an example of Shichigon-zekku poetry from seventeenth century Japanese poet Ishikawa Jozan. Each line plays an important role. The first lines serves as exposition and description of the scene, while the second line further illustrates the setting. The third line provides a change and a hint at the sublime essence of the poem, much like the turn or volta in the sonnet form. The final and fourth line completes the thought. This is an example of a quatrain that is itself an entire poem.
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.
(The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, trans. Edward Fitzgerald)
Edward Fitzgerald popularized the rubaiyat form of quatrain in his translation of Persian poet Omar Khayyam’s quatrains. Just as with the Shichigon-zekku form of quatrain highlighted in the previous example, a ruba’i quatrain is an entire poem in four lines. While the original Persian quatrains could have a number of different rhyme schemes, Fitzgerald made the AABA rhyme scheme most associated with rubaiyat in English.
The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’
(“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is an example of the ballad quatrain. He uses the rhyme scheme of ABCB throughout most of the poem. The key feature of the ballad meter, as shown above, is the alternation between iambic tetrameter (eight syllables split into four iamb feet) and iambic trimeter (six syllables, with alternating stressed syllables).
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
(“Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost)
Robert Frost is the most contemporary of all of the examples here, and it is clear that he was a scholar of poetic techniques in his poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” He uses the rhyme scheme popularized by Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Indeed, most of the quatrain examples in Frost’s poem have the AABA rhyme scheme. The final quatrain, however, is monorhymed, which was an important part of the Rustavelian quatrain.
Test Your Knowledge of Quatrain
1. Which of the following statements is the best quatrain definition?
A. A poem with exactly four lines.
B. A stanza with exactly four lines.
C. A line with iambic pentameter.
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2. Which type of quatrain does the following description refer to?
Monorhymed with sixteen syllables in each line.
C. Qiyan jueju
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3. Which of the following is true about a heroic stanza?
A. A heroic stanza alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
B. A heroic stanza is the same thing as a heroic couplet.
C. A heroic stanza has the rhyme scheme of either ABAB or AABB.
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