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Verse Form

The term “verse form” is used to describe any structure a poet uses within their work. There are many established verse forms such as the sonnet, haiku, ballad, sestina, and villanelle.

The verse form been used since poetry developed as an oral storytelling tradition. These forms develop and change throughout the years as poets experiment and popularize new types of verse. For example, contemporary examples of Elizabethan sonnets and epic poems in hexameter

Verse Form definition and examples

Verse Form Definition

A verse form is any structured form that a poem takes. This could refer to a sonnet, haiku, ballad, etc. Many poets throughout the history of verse writing chose to utilize verse forms. Some of the best-known verse forms are named for the poets who popularized them. This includes the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets and the Burns stanza and the Chaucerian stanza. Readers can explore a few of the most famous verse forms below and related examples.

Types of Verse Forms

Below are a few of the most popular verse forms in the English language: 

  • Sonnet:  fourteen-line poems that follow a strict rhyme scheme and conform to the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter.
  • Haiku: a three-line Japanese poem that follows a syllable pattern of 5-7-5.
  • Ballad: a kind of verse, sometimes narrative in nature, often set to music and developed from 14th and 15th-century minstrelsy.
  • Villanelle: a nineteen-line poem that is divided into five tercets or sets of three lines and one concluding quatrain, or set of four lines.
  • Ottava Rima: uses eight iambic lines and follows a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC.
  • Acrostic: a piece of writing in which letters form words or messages. The “acrostic” is most commonly associated with poetry.
  • Burns Stanza:  named for Scottish poet Robert Burns who popularized its use. It is a six-line stanza form that uses a rhyme scheme of AAABAB, and lines of tetrameter and dimeter.
  • Chaucerian Stanza: also known as rhyme royal, is a stanza form introduced by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. It’s seven lines long and uses the rhyme scheme ABABBCC.

Examples of Verse Forms 

Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare 

Sonnet 130’ is an example of the sonnet form as utilized by William Shakespeare. Of all William Shakespeare’s sonnets, readers are most likely to be familiar with the opening lines of this piece. The poem begins:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red, than her lips red:

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

Within the fourteen lines of this Elizabethan/Shakespearean sonnet, the poet uses a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. The poet also makes use of iambic pentameter. This means that within each line of the poem, with a few exceptions, Shakespeare includes ten syllables. These ten syllables can be divided into five sets of two beats. Within each set, there is one unstressed and one stressed syllable.

Read more William Shakespeare poems

Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe 

‘Annabel Lee’ is one of Poe’s most famous poems and a great example of a ballad. The poem begins on an optimistic note, describing the intensity of the love that the speaker shares with Annabel Lee. But, soon, things change for the worse as Annabel Lee passes away. The poet describes this as an intentional act on the part of the “winged seraphs” who were jealous of the love the two shared on earth. Here are the first lines:

It was many and many a year ago,

   In a kingdom by the sea,

That a maiden there lived whom you may know

   By the name of Annabel Lee;

And this maiden she lived with no other thought

   Than to love and be loved by me.

Poe uses examples of iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter within the poem, loosely comforting it to the metrical pattern most commonly associated with ballads. The poem also uses anapests or feet with two unstressed syllables and one stressed syllable. 

Explore more Edgar Allan Poe poems

The Old Pond by Matsuo Bashō

Haiku, as noted above, are Japanese in origin and make use of a very specific pattern of meter. The first and third lines contain five syllables, and the second line contains seven. Here are the three lines of this traditional haiku translated to English: 

Old pond 

A frog jumps

The sound of water

This poem contrasts two parts, the first: the frog jumping in the water, the second: the sound. With as few words as possible, Bashō is able to create a memorable and evocative image of nature. As with the best short poems, this piece can transport the reader to a scene with very few details. 

Read more Matsuo Bashō poems

Among the School Children by William Butler Yeats 

This interesting example of the ottava rima verse form was written in 1926 after Yeats visited St. Otteran’s School. He demonstrates the basics of the ottava rima form in the following lines: 

I dream of a Ledaean body, bent

Above a sinking fire, a tale that she

Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event

That changed some childish day to tragedy—

Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent

Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,

Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,

Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

The words “bent,” “event,” and “blent” all rhyme. As do “she,” “tragedy,” and “sympathy.” There are also a few examples of half-rhyme within the text. 

Explore William Butler Yeats’ poems.


Do all poets use verse forms? 

No, in classical poetry, most poets utilized a specific verse form, rhyme scheme, or metrical pattern. But, within modern and contemporary poetry, the majority of writers utilize free verse, at least to some extent. This refers to poetry that does not conform to any specified verse form. It does not use a rhyme scheme or specific metrical pattern.

What is an example of a verse form? 

Sonnets, haiku, villanelles, and sestinas, are all examples of verse forms. Any poetic structure that follows a specific pattern and uses repeated elements is a verse form.

Why do poets use verse forms? 

They use verse forms for a number of reasons. Firstly, they may find that a specified rhyme scheme is suited to the content that they are writing about. Or, they may want to allude to the broader history of a particular verse form and the writers who used it, by structuring their own poetry in the same way.

What are villanelles usually about?

Villanelles are usually pastoral in nature. Generally, the vast majority of villanelles focus on rural themes and life in the countryside. But, within these pieces, it is not uncommon to find discussions of love, family, the future, death, and more. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Anacreontic: metered verses in the style of the Greek poet Anacreon. His poetry often dealt with themes of love and wine.
  • Blank Verse: a kind of poetry that is written in unrhymed lines but with a regular metrical pattern.
  • Cinquain: a poetic form that makes use of a pattern of five lines.
  • Curtal Sonnet: or the contracted sonnet, is an eleven-line sonnet that follows a pattern of either ABCABCDCBDC or ABCABCDBCDC. 
  • Diamante Poetry: a popular poetic form that is made up of seven lines. They are formatted into the shape of a diamond and used to compare two opposites.
  • Found Poetry: a type of poem created using someone else’s words, phrases, or structure.

Other Resources 

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