The word “octave” comes from the Latin word meaning “eighth part”. It is an eight-line stanza or poem. Due to the wide definition of what an octave can be, there is no single rhyme scheme or metrical pattern that it takes. But, octaves are often associated with iambic pentameter. As a refresher, iambic pentameter is a type of meter in which a line has five sets of two beats, also known as syllables. The first of these syllables is unstressed and the second is stressed.
The Octave as Part of a Sonnet
One of the most frequent ways that the word “octave” appears in regards to poetry is connected to sonnet writing. Sonnets are usually separated into two sections. The first is the octave, made out of eight lines and the second is the sextet, made up of six lines. The octave can usually be dived directly in half, into two sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These two quatrains make up the first half of the most popular sonnet forms, the Italian, or Petrarchan, and the English or Shakespearean.
In the octave of a sonnet, the writer sets out the first part of their poem. These lines are then responded to in the sextet. Between the two there is, in some cases, what is known as a “turn” or “volta”. This turn is made up of a shift of some kind. It could be a shift in the speaker, the topic, the point of view, or anything else a writer can think of.
Types of Octave Poems
There are as many different types of octave poems are there are arrangements of rhyme and meter within eight lines. Here is a list of some of the most popular:
- Ottava Rima —This form is most commonly associated with the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. These eight-line poems follow a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC and use iambs, usually iambic pentameter. They are similar to Sicilian octaves.
- Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnet Octave— As described above, the octave forms the first part of an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. The lines are written in iambic pentameter and follow a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA.
- Canzonetta — This is a type of poem that is made up of several stanzas of eight lines. They rhyme ABABCDCD, sometimes changing to ABABCDCB. It is related to the canzone form.
- Cavatina —This is a poetic form that originated in Italy in the 14th century. The lines alternate between iambic pentameter and iambic diameter with a rhyme scheme of ABCB DEFE.
- Sicilian Octave —The lines of a Sicilian octave, also known as a Neapolitan octave, each contains eleven syllables and follow a rhyme scheme of ABABABAB. The form was most commonly used in the late medal period of Italian poetry.
- Hymnal Octave— Also known as the common octave, these poems follow a rhyme scheme of ABCBABCB and make use of iambic terameter and iambic trimeter
Examples of Octaves in Poetry
Example #1 How do I love thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Also known as Sonnet 43, this poem is a great example of how the octave is used within an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. In the first eight lines, the speaker goes over the various ways that she loves “thee” or you. The lines are perfectly structured and make use of the rhyme scheme one would expect, ABBAABBA. Here is the first quatrain:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
After this, she adds more reasons that she loves the intended listener. The person to whom she is speaking is likely her husband, Robert Browning, a fellow writer. In the final six lines, she eventually addresses God, acknowledging that she may die if he chooses. If so, she’ll love him better after death.
Example #2 Among School Children by William Butler Yeats
In this poem, a lover of poetry will find a good example of the ottava rima form. The poem is made up of eight stanzas, each of which contains eight lines. The stanzas follow a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Although it is not always the case, usually the lines are all in iambic pentameter. In this particular poem, Yeats describes a visit to the Convent School at Waterford, a progressive institution that housed kids four to seven years old.
Here is the first stanza of the poem:
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way—the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.