Definition of Stanza

A stanza is a set of lines in a poem grouped together and set apart from other stanzas in the poem either by a double space or by different indentation. Poems may contain any number of stanzas, depending on the author’s wishes and the structure in which the poet is writing. However, there are many strict poetic forms that designate the exact number of stanzas, as we will see below.

In general, it is easy to think of stanzas in poems as being equivalent to paragraphs in prose. That is to say that both stanzas and paragraphs contain related information, while new thoughts and concepts become the next stanza or paragraph. In some poems stanzas have regular meter and rhyme, though this is by no means a requirement for all stanzas in poetry.

Types of Stanzas

While there are many dozens of obscure forms, here are a few common stanza examples:

  • Closed Couplet: A stanza of 2 lines, usually rhyming
  • Tercet: A stanza of 3 lines. When a poem has tercets that have a rhyme scheme of ABA, then BCB, then CDC and so forth, this is known as terza rima. One famous example is Dante’s Divine Comedy.
  • Quatrain: A stanza of 4 lines, usually with rhyme schemes of AAAA, AABB, ABBA, or ABAB
  • Cinquain: A stanza of 5 lines
  • Sestain or Sestet: A stanza of 6 lines (when discussing Italian sonnets the appropriate term is sestet; the Italian sonnet form starts with an octave and is concluded by a sestet)
  • Octave: A stanza of 8 lines in iambic pentameter or hendecasyllables, usually with the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA

Groups of stanzas in fixed verse forms:

  • Sonnet: A poem with 14 lines; English sonnets have 3 quatrains with the rhyme scheme ABAB and a closed couplet at the end, while Italian sonnets (also known as Petrarchan sonnets) are made up of an octave and a sestet.
  • Sestina: A poem with 6 stanzas of 6 lines each, ending with a final 7th stanza of 3 lines. While there is no rhyme scheme, the unity in a sestina comes from the fact that the final words at the end of the first 6 lines of the poem continue to end the lines in the rest of the poem in a fixed pattern. See example #2 for how a sestina works.
  • Villanelle: A poem with 19 lines, consisting of 5 tercets and a final quatrain. Lines are repeated throughout the poem in a fixed pattern, as you can see in example #3 below.

Common Examples of Stanza

While the definition of stanza belongs only to poetry, there are many similar concepts. For example, song lyrics are usually broken into verses (including the chorus). Also, books for children generally have one key concept, action, or piece of dialogue per page, much like the way that stanzas break up the images and thoughts in a poem. Here is an example from the Beatles’ lyrics to “Hey Jude”:

Hey Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

Hey Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better

These two verses are very similar to the way stanzas break a poem into pieces.

Significance of Stanza in Literature

Poets have been using stanzas in their works for thousands of years. Many religious texts and works such as the Old English epic Beowulf are written with stanzas. The purpose of stanzas, whether in longer works or short poems, is to break the images and information into shorter pieces. Stanzas are also important in formal poems in which there is a strict meter and rhyme scheme. In the time of troubadours and oral literature stanzas had even greater importance because they were helpful tools for the speaker to memorize long works.

Examples of Stanza in Literature

Example #1

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

(“Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare)

“Sonnet 18” is one of William Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, and it is a good example of how stanzas work in English sonnets. We can see 3 quatrains with the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF, ending with a closed couplet GG. As is the case with Shakespeare’s sonnets and many of his dialogues in plays, these stanzas are written in the meter of iambic pentameter (10 syllables with a regular pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables).

Example #2

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

(“Sestina” by Elizabeth Bishop)

Elizabeth Bishop’s appropriately titled poem, “Sestina,” in an excellent stanza example. In this poem, you can see that each line ends with one of the six words that Bishop chose: “house,” “grandmother,” “child,” “stove,” “almanac,” and “tears.” As in every sestina, the end words alternate in position. The sestina ends with a tercet that repeats each of the six words one final time.

Example #3

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

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(“Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas)

Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” is one of the most famous examples of a villanelle ever written. You can see the first and third line in the first tercet repeated throughout the poem as the final lines of other tercets, and also as the final two lines in the last quatrain. The rhyme scheme is very strict in a villanelle, with every tercet following an ABA pattern, and the final quatrain using an AABB pattern.

Example #4

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same…

(“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost)

This is an example of stanza that does not have a strict verse form, yet uses regular meter and rhyme. Frost writes in the slightly unusual cinquain pattern, or 5 lines per stanza, with the similarly unusual choice of 9 syllables per line. Frost often made choices such as these that reckon back to an earlier time of much stricter rhyme and meter, yet with contemporary modifications that are relatively unusual.

Example #5

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

(“From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee)

This poem from Li-Young Lee is the most contemporary example of stanza in this group. Lee does not use regular meter or rhyme, and the first 2 stanzas of the poem are cinquains (5 lines), while the second 2 stanzas of the poem are sestains (6 lines). You can see the shift in imagery, however, between one stanza to the next. In this excerpt, the first stanza shown imagines the different people and places that the peaches have come into contact with, while the second stanza performs a more transcendental leap to imagine the orchard as becoming part of the body.

Test Your Knowledge of Stanza

1. Choose the correct stanza definition from the following statements:
A. A group of four lines with a regular rhyme scheme.
B. A group of lines in a poem set apart from other groups of lines.
C. A group of lines with no regular meter or rhyme scheme.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. A stanza may have 4 lines with regular rhyme scheme, or it may have no regular meter or rhyme scheme, but neither is a requirement for stanzas.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the following stanza from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

What type of stanza is this an example of?
A. Octave
B. Cinquain
C. Quatrain
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. Frost uses a slightly more unusual rhyme scheme in this poem of AABA.[/spoiler]

3. Consider this description of a poem:
14 lines, comprised of either 3 quatrains and a closed couplet, or of an octave and a sestet.
Which type of poem is this?
A. Sonnet
B. Sestina
C. Villanelle
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]