Stanzas are the verse equivalent of a paragraph. Sometimes, they contain one idea or are simply a few lines discussing a broader idea. Stanzas range in length from one line up to an unlimited number of lines. Most poems contain stanzas with groups of lines between three and ten lines long. They can be found in poetic forms like an ode, sestina, and some types of sonnets. The four-line stanza is one of the most popular. It’s been used by everyone from William Shakespeare to Robert Frost and Edgar Allan Poe in ‘Annabel Lee.’
Explore the Poetic Stanza
Stanzas are the building blocks of poems. They are as fundamental to poetry as paragraphs are to prose.
Depending on the poem, a writer might choose to use many different sets of lines/stanzas. For example, a poem might contain ten tercets, or sets of three lines, five quintains or sets of five lines, and so on. There is an endless number of combinations of stanza numbers and stanza lengths that writers can use.
Types of Stanzas
In English poetry, there are several common stanzas writers might use. These are all rhymed in some circumstances and others, not:
- Monostitch: one line stanza.
- Couplet: set of two lines.
- Tercet: set of three lines.
- Quatrain: set of four lines.
- Quintain: set of five lines.
- Sestet: set of six lines.
- Septet: set of seven lines.
Some other stanza types include:
- Ballad stanza: rhyming quatrain with alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. It usually rhymes ABCB.
- Spenserian stanza: used in ‘The Faerie Queene’ by Edmund Spenser. It has nine lines in iambic pentameter (contains five metrical feet) and a final line of iambic hexameter (contains twelve metrical feet).
- In Memoriam stanza: a set of four lines written in iambic tetrameter and rhyming ABBA. Used in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’
- Isometric stanza: a stanza that contains lines of the same length.
Examples of Stanzas in Poetry
This short Millay poem is well-loved and often discussed. In it, readers can explore a symbolic depiction of sexuality and freedom. It is a four-line poem that is contained within one stanza. These lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABAB and a metrical pattern that is similar to that of a ballad with a few changes. The first line has seven total syllables rather than eight. This creates tension that matches up well with the content. Here are the first two lines:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
The candle, which represents everything from sex to literature, works to depict Millay’s well-lived life. Even though it can’t burn forever, she wants everyone to admire its “lovely light.” This poem might be brief, but its arrangement and content are incredibly impactful. It is a great example of how a short stanza might stand on its own and be just as important as a long poem made up of many multi-lined stanzas.
Read more Edna St. Vincent Millay poems.
This contemporary piece of poetry is eleven stanzas long. They are all six lines long, making them sextets. The poem is also a dramatic monologue, one of many published in The World’s Wife. The stanzas use internal rhymes, meaning that there are rhymes within the lines rather than at the end of the lines. It also uses an iambic meter and a trochaic meter. Here is the first stanza:
It was late September. I’d just poured a glass of wine, begun
to unwind, while the vegetables cooked. The kitchen
filled with the smell of itself, relaxed, its steamy breath
gently blanching the windows. So I opened one,
then with my fingers wiped the other’s glass like a brow.
He was standing under the pear tree snapping a twig.
This is a great example of a slightly longer stanza. Duffy does not use a regular pattern of rhyme in its six lines, but the lines are quite close to the same length. This is maintained throughout ‘Mrs. Midas.’
Discover more Carol Ann Duffy poems.
In this Ted Hughes poem, there are three stanzas, each of which is a tercet. This means that they all contain three lines. This is a concise form that quickly and clearly conveys Hughes’ intentions. The poem is written in free verse, meaning that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. They are also different lengths. Here is the first stanza:
On the sheep-cropped summit, under hot sun,
The mouse crouched, staring out the chance
It dared not take.
Another element of stanzas that’s interesting to consider is how the poet uses capitalization. In this case, and the previous two examples, all the poets chose to capitalize the first letter of each line, whether or not it starts a new sentence.
Explore more Ted Hughes poems.
In ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’ Thomas uses tercets rhyming ABA. Here are the first three lines:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
He also makes use of refrains, repeating the lines “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” and “Do not go gentle into that good night” in order to provide the poem with more structure. One example of this refrain is seen in the third line of the excerpt.
Read more Dylan Thomas poems.
Why Do Writers Use Stanzas?
Writers use stanzas as organizational building blocks for their poetry. They help to create a pattern of lines, structure the rhyme scheme and metrical pattern (if there are ones), and set a mood for the reader to engage with. The breaks in lines and between stanzas can create a feeling of suspense and drama. In some instances, writers even use stanzas and different indentations to create a visual shape on the page (although this is rare).
While stanzas are important, there are some poetic forms, like the Shakespearean sonnet and Petrarchan sonnet (or Italian sonnet), that don’t traditionally use individual stanzas. In some instances, sonnets are separated into quatrains and octaves, or sets of four lines and sets of eight lines.
Stanzas can range from one line up to as many lines as a writer is interested in linking together.
No. Stanzas can be any length.
Depending on the poem, a poet might choose to use one short or long stanza or separate their poem out into hundreds of quatrains. It’s entirely up to the writer and the type of organizational structure they’re interested in.
A sonnet is one set of fourteen lines. It is contained within a single stanza.
Related Literary Terms
- Octave: an eight-line stanza or poem.
- Repetition: an important literary technique that sees a writer reuse words or phrases multiple times.
- Rondel: has two quatrains that are followed by a quintet, a set of five lines. The verse form has its origins in the lyrical poetry of 14th-century France.
- Refrain: used in poems and songs. They are repeated sections of text that usually appear at the end of a stanza or verse.
- Scansion: the analysis of a poem’s metrical patterns. It organizes the lines, metrical feet, and individual syllables into groups.
- Exact Rhyme: a literary device that’s used in poetry. It occurs when the writer uses the same stressed vowel or consonant sounds.