A quatrain is a verse form that is made up of four lines with fifteen different possible rhyme schemes.
These stanzas, in some cases, have separate themes than the other quatrains in the poem. Today, the word is usually used to refer to sets of lines that form a stanza. The most popular rhyme schemes of a quatrain are AAAA, ABAB, and ABBA.
Poets use this form in a number of different ways, but many have chosen to use four-lined stanzas as the epigrams that come before the first stanza of a poem. These might outline why the poet is writing, reference another work, or be a literal excerpt from another source.
Explore the term 'Quatrain'
History of the Quatrain
This poetic form can be traced back to Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as China. There are examples of quatrain poems in the Middle Ages in Europe, as well as in the Middle East. Ancient, influential poets such as Oma Khayyam were known to have used this form of poetry.
Purpose of Quatrains
This form of poetry has been an important part of the history of English literarture. It allows poets to experiment with a variety of rhyme schemes and clearly define the shape of their poems. The quatrain is used when a poet wants to write something that looks consistent on the page and feels that way when one reads it. The rhythm of the lines is benefited by the standard structure of the stanzas.
Types of Quatrains
There are numerous stanza forms that come about as a result of poets experimenting with quatrains. They range in their rhyme schemes and their metrical patterns. As a reminder, iambic refers to syllables that follow a pattern of one unstressed and one stressed. Pentameter means that there are five sets of two beats per line and tetrameter means there are four sets of two beats per line. Below are a few of the many different stanza forms.
- Ballad Stanza: One of the most common quatrain stanza forms, it follows a rhyme scheme of ABAB and uses iambic tetrameter. This form resulted from church hymns.
- Goethe Stanza: These stanzas follow a pattern of ABAB and do not need to follow a specific rhyme scheme. They are named after the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
- Petrarchan, or Italian Quatrain: Made poplar by the Italian poet Petrarch, and used in Petrarchan sonnets, these stanzas follow a rhyme scheme of ABBA with the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter.
- Elegiac Stanza: This stanza form is popular with elegies, or poems that are written in honor of someone who has died. The stanzas follow a rhyme scheme of ABAB with a metrical pattern of iambic pentameter.
- In Memoriam Stanza: Named for Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s masterpiece, In Memoriam A.H.H., this stanza form uses the rhyme scheme of ABBA with iambic tetrameter
Examples of Quatrains in Poetry
Example #1 Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray
This poem was finished in 1750 and is one of the best examples of the power of consistently formatted quatrains. It is thought that this poem was inspired by the death of Richard West, a fellow poet. Although an elegy in name, and perhaps in part in subject matter, it lacks many of the qualities of an elegy. It is more of a mediation on death itself rather than on the death of a specific person. There is no invocation, mourners, or any of the symbols present in traditional elegies. Take a look at the first two stanzas:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
In these first lines, the poem sets up a narrative that is going to lead to a larger conversation about death. The lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABAB and conform to the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter, that of an elegiac stanza.
Example #2 In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
This work, which is commonly considered to be Tennyson’s best, contains 133 cantos, each of which varies in the number of stanzas it contains. It was written after the death of Tennyson’s close friend Arthur Henry Hallam who died at the age of twenty-two. Quatrains appear in this piece, with lines rhyme in a pattern of ABBA of which follow a metrical pattern known as iambic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats, the first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed.
One of the reasons for the poem’s lasting influence is its remarkably consistent composition. Tennyson manages to maintain this pattern throughout the cantos. It was so well-loved that the stanza form is now known as In Memoriam stanzas. Here is a brief excerpt from the poem:
So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry.
This section of ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ comes from Canto 54. In it, the speaker, Tennyson, is questioning himself. He uses the pattern that is maintained throughout the rest of the poem, along with some other poetic techniques such as anaphora.