Alberto Ríos

Terza Rima

Forms of Verse, Fall 2000

Bob Haynes

                                   TERZA RIMA

Terza Rima is a poetic rhyme scheme which involve interlocking rhymes,
written in iambic tercets. The rhyme scheme is aba bcb cdc ded (and so
forth) for as long as the poet wishes to continue. Although no specific
line length is required, most terza rima poems in English are written in
iambic pentameter. If other line lengths are used, such as tetrameter,
all lines must be in that length.


The poet Dante is credited with inventing the form, and used it for his Divine Comedy, perhaps as a means of symbolizing the Trinity, and for giving an overall sense of unity to his large work. Dante may have fashioned the terza rima after the Old Provencal "sirventes" which was a lyric poem form used by
troubadours, and often used themes of personal abuse or praise. Whether Dante used this as his model, however, is uncertain. Dante's language of Italian is a rhyme-rich language, and so the complexities of the language are not easily translated into English, which is more limited in the way rhymes can combine word choices. In Robert Pinsky's translation of the Inferno, however, Pinsky retains the tercet form and interlocking rhyme of the terza rima. His translation opens:

Midway on our life's journey, I found myself                     
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard--so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.           
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well

I'll tell what I saw, thought how I came to enter
I cannot well say, being so full of sleep
Whatever moment it was I began to blunder

Off the true
path....                                                     (etc.)     


The terza rima form came into English with Chaucer ("Complaint to his
Lady"). Other English poet's including Byron ("The Prophecy of Dante")
and Shelley ("Ode to the West Wind,"  "The Triumph of Life,"  and
"Prince Athanase") used the form with a few variations (notably the
ending). Shelley's West Wind, for example, ends in a rhyming couplet
(sometimes the West Wind is referred to as a Terza Rima Sonnet). In the
20th century, W.H. Auden ("The Sea and the Mirror") and Archibald
Mac Leash ("The Conquistador") made use of the form. The following
example is from Auden's "The Sea and The Mirror":

II: The Supporting Cast, Sotto Voce

As all the pigs have turned back into men                       
And the sky is auspicious and the sea
Calm as a clock, we can all go home again.

Yes, it undoubtedly looks as if we
Could take life as easily now as tales                               
Write ever-after: not only are the

Two heards silhouetted against the sails
--And kissing, of course--well built, but the lean
Fool is quite a person, the fingernails

Of the dear old butler for once quite clean,                       


Perhaps, a surprising example of terza rima (as a sonnet, ending in a
couplet) is Robert Frost's

Acquainted with the Night

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-by;
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.




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