Terza rima refers to a very specific rhyme scheme. It involves three sets of tercets, or sets of three lines that follow the pattern ABA BCB DED, and so on.
Terza rima was first used by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri in his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, or Commedia. The interwoven rhymes of The Divine Comedy have since appeared in other poems by various writers in multiple languages. Alighieri wrote in Italian but English examples are quite easy to find as well. The words “terza rima” mean “third rhyme” in Italian.
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Definition and Explanation of Terza Rima
Terza rima is an Italian stanza form popularized by Alighieri after the publication of his Divine Comedy. The pattern, ABA BCB DED, is known as an interlocking rhyme scheme. Aside from this pattern, there are no other elements that define a terza rima poem. Poets do not need to use a specific metrical pattern or use a certain number of lines. Despite this, the majority of the English examples make use of iambic pentameter.
Why do Writers Use Terza Rima?
Poets use this technique for a variety of reasons, many of which are similar to other traditional poetic forms. The chain or interlocking rhyme is very consistent, a pattern that many poets enjoyed especially when paired with iambic pentameter. It also allowed poets to connect the stanzas to one another, creating a smooth transition from topic to topic or from image to image. Poets also chose this rhyme scheme in order to allude to the broader history of the pattern. By writing ‘Ode to the West Wind’ in terza rima, Shelley is evoking Alighieri’s epic The Divine Comedy.
Examples of Terza Rima
One of the most important examples of this rhyme scheme is Dante’s Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. This epic poem is divided into three sections, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Alighieri pioneered this rhyme scheme, and it is now intimately connected with his masterpiece. Take a look at these lines from the first canto of Inferno in the original Italian:
Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.
Io non so ben ridir com’ i’ v’intrai,
tant’ era pien di sonno a quel punto
che la verace via abbandonai.
Ma poi ch’i’ fui al piè d’un colle giunto,
là dove terminava quella valle
che m’avea di paura il cor compunto,
These three stanzas are a perfect example of the rhyme scheme in action. The ending sounds are fairly obvious, with “trovai” rhyming with “v’intrai” and “abbandonai” in the second stanza. These same lines in English read:
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.
But after I had reached a mountain’s foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,
Sometimes, translators will try to maintain the rhyme scheme, at least to an extent, in the new version. But, the content is more important.
Example #2 Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley
In ‘Ode to the West Wind,’ Shelley creates a speaker who celebrates the wind’s power. This poem makes use of the terza rim pattern throughout the text. It is much easier to stop than in The Divine Comedy since Shelley wrote in English. Here are a few lines from the beginning of the poem:
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: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
here, the rhyme scheme is apparent through the use of “dead” in stanza one and “red” and “bed” in stanza two. The word “thou” rhymes, mostly, with “low” and “blow” in the next lines. This is one example of how Shelley used half-rhymes on occasion.
Example #3 Complaint unto His Lady by Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer was the first English poet to write in terza rima. His poem ‘Complaint unto His Lady’ makes use of this pattern. It is generally considered a more complicated task using terza rima in English than in other languages due to its more complex phonology. Hre is the first stanza of the poem:
The longe nightes, whan every creature
Shulde have hir rest in somwhat as by kynde,
Or elles ne may hir lif nat longe endure,
Hit falleth most into my woful mynde
How I so fer have broght myself behynde
That, sauf the deeth, ther may nothyng me lisse,
So desespaired I am from alle blisse.
Despite the older English spellings, the rhyme scheme is still apparent. For example, “kynde” (kind) in line two and “mynde” (mind) and “behynde” in the next lines.
Example #4 Acquainted With the Night by Robert Frost
‘Acquainted with the Night’ is a more contemporary example of how this rhyme scheme can be used. This melancholy poem depicts a speaker’s understanding of the night and his description of the long walks he takes during that time period. Here is the first stanza:
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.
In the following stanza, “rain” rhymes with “lane” and “explain,” while “beat” goes on to rhyme with “feet” and “street” in the third stanza.
Terza Rima Synonyms
Terza rima is Italian for “third rhyme,” making it difficult to find perfect English synonyms. But, other related words could include tercet rhyme, triple rhyme, interlocking rhyme, and chain rhyme.
Related Literary Devices
- Rhyme Scheme of Sonnets—Sonnets usually conform to one of two different rhyme schemes, those connected to the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan sonnet forms.
- Iambic Pentameter—a very common way that lines of poetry are structured. It refers to lines that contain five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed.
- Canto—a subsection of a long narrative or epic poem. It is made up of at least five lines, but it is normally much longer.
- Epic Poetry—a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.