It was first used in Chaucer’s long poem, ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ and then later in ‘Parlement of Foules.’ There are also examples of these stanzas in his famed Canterbury Tales. It’s thought that Chaucer took this poetic form from the French ballade stanza or was perhaps inspired by the Italian ottava rima.
Its second name, rhyme royal, likely came into use after James I of Scotland used it in ‘The Kingis Quair.’ Chaucer’s broader influence is seen through various English and Scottish poets using this form.
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Definition of Chaucerian Stanza
A Chaucerian stanza, as popularized by the poet of the same name, contains seven lines. These lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABABBCC and can be separated into a tercet and two couplets or a quatrain and a tercet. Usually, the stanzas also use iambic pentameter. This means that the lines contain ten syllables each. These can be separated into groups of two beats. The first beat of each pair, or foot, is unstressed, and the second is stressed.
This stanza form was incredibly popular throughout the late Middle Ages.
Examples of Chaucerian Stanzas in Poetry
They flee from me that sometime did me seek by Sir Thomas Wyatt
‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek’ by Thomas Wyatt is a great example of a poem written in rhyme royal or that uses Chaucerian stanzas. It describes one of Wyatt’s affairs with high-born, or aristocratic women. Some have suggested the woman he focuses on in this poem is Anne Boleyn. Other scholars have suggested that this poem was written in an attempt to summarize or epitomize the Renaissance period.
Here is the first stanza of Wyatt’s poem:
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
The same rhyme scheme of ABABBCC can be found in these lines, as in the other examples below.
Read more Sir Thomas Wyatt poems.
Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer
‘Troilus and Criseyde’ was the first poem in which Chaucer used rhyme royal. It tells the story of two lovers who try to maintain their relationship against the backdrop of the siege of Troy. It was completed sometime around the mid-1380s. Here is the first stanza in the original English:
The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thou help me for tendyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte!
The traditional rhyme scheme is obvious in these lines with “tellen” and “fellen” rhyming and taking on the ‘A’ rhyme and “Troye,” “Ioye,” and “ye” taking on the role of the ‘B’ rhyme. Finally, the poem ends with a couplet and the rhyming words “tendyte” and “wryte.” It’s also clear that most of these lines are in iambic pentameter. Here is another example from the poem:
To thee clepe I, thou goddesse of torment,
Thou cruel Furie, sorwing ever in peyne;
Help me, that am the sorwful instrument
That helpeth lovers, as I can, to pleyne!
For wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery fere,
And, to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.
Once again, the rhyme scheme comes through clearly despite the use of Middle English.
Read more of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetry.
The Flower and the Leaf
‘The Flower and the Leaf’ is another well-known poem that uses Chaucerian stanzas. It was written sometime around 1470 and published anonymously. For a time, several centuries, in fact, the work was mistakenly attributed to Chaucer, in part due to the use of rhyme royal. It’s still unknown who the poet was, but some scholars have suggested they were a woman.
The poem follows a woman as she, unable to sleep, walks outside and finds a goldfinch singing in a tree. A group of knights and ladies arrive. There is jousting, dancing, and more. Here are a few lines from the poem that demonstrate the Chaucerian stanza:
When that Phebus his chaire of gold so hie
Had whirled up the sterry sky aloft,
And in the Boole was entred certainly;
When shoures sweet of raine discended soft,
Causing the ground, fele times and oft,
Up for to give many an wholsome aire,
And every plaine was clothed faire
In these lines, the rhyme scheme uses “hie” and “certainly” as the ‘A’ rhyme and “aloft,” “soft,” and “oft” as the ‘B’ rhyme. “Aire” and “faire” conclude the poem.
Why Do Poets Use Chaucerian Stanzas?
Poets use Chaucerian stanzas for a variety of reasons. Today, if a poet used the form, it would be unusual and likely done so in order to directly allude to Chaucer’s influence on English poetry. Often, older poetic forms are used for this exact purpose. A poet might want to allude to a literary tradition. During the late Middle Ages, poets used this form because of its popularity and the way it lends itself to narrative poems. These are often longer and require a steady but not overwhelming rhyme scheme and metrical pattern.
Chaucerian Stanza FAQs
The Chaucerian stanza is important because of the wide variety of literary works it was used in. It was widely spread throughout the late Middle Ages and its use captures a specific literary moment.
Some poets may still use the Chaucerian stanza, but it has long since passed its prime. Today, poets are more interested in using free verse or less complicated rhyme schemes in their work.
The Chaucerian stanza is known as rhyme royal because it was used by James I of Scotland in his ‘The Kings Quair.’ This poem is semi-autobiographical in nature and details the King’s capture while on his way to France.
Poets like Sir Thomas Wyatt, Geoffrey Chaucer, Robert Henryson, and Thomas Sackville used the Chaucerian stanza. These poets, among others in the late Middle Ages, were fond of the form.
Related Literary Terms
- Ballad: a kind of verse, sometimes narrative in nature, often set to music and developed from 14th and 15th-century minstrelsy.
- Cinquain: a poetic form that makes use of a pattern of five lines.
- Epitaph: a short lyric written in memory of someone who has died. Sometimes, epitaphs serve as elegies.
- Free Verse: lines are unrhymed, and there are no consistent metrical patterns.
- Narrative Poem: contain all the elements of a story and are normally longer than average.
- Octave: comes from the Latin word meaning “eighth part.” It is an eight-line stanza or poem.
- Read in full: Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer
- Listen: An Introduction to Chaucer
- Read in full: The Floure and the Leafe