In putting words together the poet gives them a particular form or design. A poem, therefore, must be built - before it can be felt by the reader or listener. The simplest unit in its design is the foot, a group of two or three syllables. Ancient poetry had more than twenty different types of feet, but most English verse consists of four kinds. In the order of popularity, they are as follows: u=unstress '=stress

1. The iambic foot:u' This consists of a weak (or unstressed) syllable followed by a strongly accented one. It is sometimes called the "skipping" foot: ta-dum, ta-dum. An iambic foot is illustrated by such words as afraid, begin, hello, receive, because. The following, by Robert Frost, is an iambic line of verse:

      u     '       u    '    u   '    u   '
    Whose woods / these are / I think /I know

2. The trochaic foot.'u This is the exact opposite of the iambic foot; it consists of a strongly accented syllable followed by a weak (or unstressed) one. (' u) It is known as the "marching" foot: dum-ta, dum-ta. A trochaic foot is illustrated by such words as weary, willow, twi kle, flowing, silent. The following, by Longfellow, is an example of trochaic verse:

      '   u     '  u    ' u    ' u
    Then the / little / Hia / watha

3. The dactylic foot.'uu This consists of three syllables: a strongly stressed syllable followed by two weak ones. It is a "waltzing" foot, and the rhythm is illustrated by such words as fortunate, Saturday, daffodil, murmuring, rhapsody. The following, by Thomas Hood, illustrates a dactylic line:

      '   u   u    '  u u
    Take her up / tenderly

4. The anapestic foot.uu' This is another foot of three syllables. A "galloping" foot, it begins with two rapid unaccented syllables and ends on a strong down-beat. The anapest is illustrated by such words as interrupt, contradict, engineer, masquerade, Galilee. The following, from Browning's "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix," is an example of a speedy anapestic line:

      u   u    '      u u  '     u  u   '      u    u    '
    Till at length / into Aix / Roland gal / loped and stood.


Feet are combined to make a line of poetry. The length, or measure, of a line is called the meter. The shortest line of poetry contains only one foot (monometer); one of the longest (octameter) consists of eight feet. Perhaps the best known is the five-foot line (pentameter), usually with an iambic beat and therefore called iambic pentameter. It is easily recognized in the plays of Shakespeare, the blank verse of John Milton, and the unrhymed narratives of Robert Frost.


Every poem has a pattern, and it is the line which determines the pattern. The foot is the unit of the line; the measured line is the unit of the verse, or stanza; the stanza is the unit that shapes the poem as a whole.

The shortest stanza is the couplet. As the name implies, it consists of two lines. Sometimes a couplet may form a complete poem, as, for example, this German proverb:

    Away with recipes in books!
    Hunger is the best of cooks!

The three-line stanza is sometimes called a triplet, sometimes a tercet. Many poems are written in this form, such as the Latin epigram:

    Now I know everything! "so cries
    The foolish youth. But when he sighs
    Ali, I know nothing," he is wise.

Other examples of tercets are Louis Untermeyer's "Long Feud," Alfred Kreymborg's "The Ditty the City Sang" and, except for the last stanza, John Masefield's "A Consecration."

Sometimes the three-line stanza is so arranged that the first and third line of each tercet is rhymed, and the end-word of the second (unrhymed) line is carried over as the first and third rhymes of the stanza following. This stanza form is known as terza rima (literally "third rhyme"). It is the basis of Dante's Divine Comedy and Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," which begins:

    O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
    Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
    Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing

    Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
    Pestilence-stricken multitudes! 0 thou
    Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

    The wingéd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
    Each like a corpse within its grave, until
    Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

    Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
    (Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
    With living hues and odors plain and hill.

The four-line stanza, or quatrain, is the most common of all verse forms. In its simplest meter (the so-called ballad stanza) only the second and fourth lines are rhymed, as in most of Emily Dickinson's poems and Sara Teasdale's:

Usually, however, all the lines of the quatrain are rhymed; the first line is rhymed with the third, the second with the fourth. This book contains countless examples of this form of quatrain, notably Elinor Wylie's "Sea Lullaby", Robert Frost's "Blue-Butterfly Day," Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Miniver Cheevy," Oscar Wilde's "Requiescat," W. E. Henley's "Invictus," and Richard Hovey's "Unmanifest Destiny," which ends:

    I do not know beneath what sky
    Nor on what seas shall be thy fate;
    I only know it shall be high,
    I only know it shall be great.

Another form of the quatrain in which all the lines rhyme is composed of two couplets. It rhymes in pairs (a-a-b-b), as in Paul Laurence Dunbar's "A Coquette Conquered," Elizabeth Coatsworth's "A Lady Comes to an Inn," Robert Louis Stevenson's "Romance," A. E. Housman's "The Carpenter's Son," and Edwin Markham's "Outwitted":

    He drew a circle that shut me out -
    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
    But Love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle that took him in!

Another interesting quatrain form, also with all lines rhyming, is known as "enclosed rhyme" (a-b-b-a); the first and last lines seem to bracket, or enclose, the inner pair of rhymes. Recent examples are Robert Frost's "The Pasture" (page ioo), William Butler Yeats's "When You Are Old," and W. H. Davies's "Days Too Short," which begins:

    When primroses are out in Spring,
    And small blue violets come between;
    When merry birds sing on boughs green,
    And rills, as soon as born, must sing.

There are still other variations of the quatrain form, the best of which is the so-called " Omar stanza " because it was popularized by Edward FitzGerald in his Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Three of the four lines are rhymed, but not the third (a-a-x-a). For example:

    The moving finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all your piety nor wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
    Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.

Less familiar are stanzas of five lines (cinquain or quintet), six lines (sestet), seven lines (illustrated by the rhyme royal of William Morris and John Masefield), eight lines (octave), and nine lines. The last, used frequently by John Keats and Byron, is at its best in the Spenserian stanza, so called because Spenser employed it so smoothly in "The Faerie Queen." Longer stanzas are rare; but one of them, the sonnet, has been immensely popular ever since it originated in Italy more than seven centuries ago.

Let us attempt the definition and exemplification of major verse forms in English Poetry. First is the couplet-two lines linked by rhyme; since Chaucer's time it has been used most frequently either in tetrameter or pentameter lines. The following lines from Milton's L:Allegro illustrate iambic tetrameter couplets, sometimes called octosyllabics:

    Then to the well-trod stage anon,
    If Jonson's learned sock be on,
    Or sweetest Shakespeare fancy's child
    Warble his native wood-notes wild,
    And ever against eating cares, 5
    Lap me in soft Lydian airs,
    Married to immortal verse
    Such as the meeting soul may pierce
    In notes, with many a winding bout
    Of linked sweetness long drawn out. 10

The following lines from the beginning of Dryden's The Hind and the Panther are an example of iambic pentameter couplets, usually called heroic couplets:

    A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchang'd,
    Fed on the lawns, and in the forest rang'd;
    Without unspotted, innocent within,
    She fear'd no danger, for she knew no sin.
    Yet had she oft been chas'd with horns and bounds
    And Scythian shafts; and many winged wounds
    Aim'd at her heart; was often forc'd to fly,
    And doom'd to death, tho' fated not to die.

Each of the first two couplets in the Dryden passage contains a complete unit of thought; such couplets are called closed couplets. The sense of the next couplet (the third) runs over into the following one; such a couplet is called a run-on couplet. Similarly a line in which a unit of thought is complete is called an end-stopped line, and a line in which the unit of thought "leaks" over into the next line or lines is called a run-on line. Another name for the "running-on" of the sense from one line to another is eniambement.

Since other verse forms involve stanzas, let us first define a stanza as a group of lines arranged according to any given metrical and rhyme scheme and forming a unit of a poem. Among the simplest of stanzas is the tercet, a stanza of three lines bound by rhyme: the poet is free in his choice of line length. Upon Julia's Clothes by Robert Herrick is an example:

    Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
    Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
    That liquefaction of her clothes.

    Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
    That brave vibration each way free,
    0 how that glittering taketh me!

A variation of the tercet is terza rima, used by Dante in the Divine Comedy; it rhymes aba, bcb, cdc, ded, etc. It is used in Robert Browning's The Statue and the Bust:

    There's a palace in Florence, the world knows well,
    And a statue watches it from the square,
    And this story of both do our townsmen tell.

    Ages ago, a lady there,
    At the farthest window facing the East 5
    Asked, "Who rides by with the royal air?"

    The bridesmaids' prattle around her ceased;
    She leaned forth, one on either hand;
    They saw how the blush of the bride increased

    They felt by its beats her heart expand- 10
    As one at each ear and both in a breath
    Whispered, "The Great-Duke Ferdinand."

Of four-line stanzas, called quatrains, there is a wide variety in both line length and rhyme scheme. Among the most common is the ballad stanza, alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter and rhyming abcb; it is used by Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

    It is an ancient Mariner,
    And he stoppeth one of three.
    By thy long gray beard and glittering eye,
    Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

    Other frequent quatrain rhyme schemes are abab, abba, and aaba.

    Five- and six-line stanzas-the quintet and sestet-too, exist in a variety of both line lengths and rhyme schemes. Among the more common rhyme schemes are abccb, ababb, aabbb, aabcdd, ababab, and ababcc. Of seven-line stanzas-the septet-the most favored is "rime royal," supposedly first used by King James I of Scotland; in the hands of Geoffrey Chaucer, it became a superb vehicle for narrative poetry. The lines are iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme is ababbcc. The opening stanza of William Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece supplies an example:

      From the besieged Ardea all in post,
      Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
      Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host
      And to Collatium bears the lightless fire
      Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire
      And girdle with embracing flames the waist
      Of Collatine's fair love, Lucrece the chaste.

    As might be expected, eight-line stanzas-called octaves-also exist in a variety of forms; among the more common rhyme schemes are abababab, ababccdd, ababcdcd, aaabcccd, ababbcbc (the so-called Monk's Tale stanza because of its use by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Monk's Tale in The Canterbury Tales). Ottava rima introduced into England from Italy by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the sixteenth century rhymes abababcc; it is effectively and amusingly used by Byron in Don Juan:

      But man is a carnivorous production,
      And must have meals, at least one meal a day;
      He cannot live, like woodcocks, upon suction,
      But, like the shark and tiger, must have prey;
      Although his anatomical construction
      Bears vegetables, in a grumbling way,
      Your labouring people think beyond all question
      Beef, veal, and mutton, better for digestion.

    The Spenserian stanza, the invention of Edmund Spenser, consists of nine lines, the first eight iambic pentamenter, the ninth iambic hexameter (an Alexandrine) rhyming ababbcbcc. The following example is from Spenser's The Faerie Queene:

      Like as a ship, that through the Ocean wyde
      Directs her course unto one certaine cost,
      Is met of many a counter winde and tyde,
      With which her wing6d speed is let and crost,
      And she her selfe in stonne surges tost;
      Yet making many a borde, and many a bay,
      Still winnetb way, ne bath her compass lost:
      Right so it fares with me in this long way,
      Whose course is often stayd, yet never is astray.

    Every art has its techniques or "devices." To achieve his effects, the painter must understand composition, perspective, how to draw, and how to mix his paints. The composer must know the principles of harmony and counterpoint. The architect must study engineering; he must be acquainted with such things as columns, arches, "spans," and "stresses " so that his structures will be not only beautiful but practical. The art of poetry, like these other arts, needs skill as well as a desire to create. To appreciate it fully, the reader must understand some of the techniques or "devices" by which the poet makes a poem. The principal "devices" of poetry are rhythm and rhyme; epithet (the power of words); comparison (simile and metaphor); onomatopoeia (words as sounds); inversion; alliteration.

    Intro | Verse Forms | Ballad | Dramatic | Lyric | Epigram | Sonnet
    Ode | Elegy | Epic | Blank Verse | Free Verse