Throughout poetry, there are numerous ways that writers can arrange lines. For example, a poet might choose to contain their lines within one long stanza, with no breaks. Or, they might separate out every line into monostitches or single-line stanzas. More often, poets use quintains or quatrains. These are sets of five or four lines. The various stanza forms can be explored in more detail below.
Below are also a few examples of the named stanza forms, ones that have been attributed to big-name poets throughout history. These writers either invented the form or popularized it. For example, the “Spenserian stanza” used by Edmund Spenser in ‘The Faerie Queene.’
Explore the Quintain
A quintain is a stanza that has five lines. A poem might be made up of multiple quintains, or it might only have one.
It’s also possible to see a poem labeled as a “quintain” if it only has five lines (within one stanza) total.
While some stanza forms require a specific rhyme scheme, quatrains do not. As long as the stanza has five lines, it’s a quatrain.
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 Quintains
‘Bei Hennef’ is an example of a poem that has stanzas of different lengths. The first two stanzas have three lines, making them tercets; the third stanza has two lines (a couplet), the fourth stanza has five (a quintain), and the final stanza has seven total lines. This is not an uncommon occurrence within poems. The fourth stanza reads:
And at last I know my love for you is here,
I can see it all, it is whole like the twilight,
It is large, so large, I could not see it before
Because of the little lights and flickers and interruptions,
Troubles, anxieties, and pains.
These lines are arranged according to how Lawrence wanted readers to experience the poem. Here, his speaker expresses the most important part of the poem, that their love for the listener exists, but the world was so chaotic and filled with small troubles that they couldn’t see it clearly.
Explore more D.H. Lawrence poems.
Arrivals, Departures by Philip Larkin
This well-known piece uses a narrator who is unable to resist the desire to travel. Whenever he’s faced with the choice to leave or stay, he always chooses the former. The poem is three stanzas, separated into sets of five lines, or quintains. These quintains follow a specific and consistent rhyme scheme of ABBAAC DDCEF FEAAA. This slightly complex pattern is unusual, but it suits the content and Larkin’s style. Here is the first stanza:
This town has docks where channel boats come sidling;
Tame water lanes, tall sheds, the traveller sees
(His bag of samples knocking at his knees),
And hears, still under slackened engines gliding,
His advent blurted to the morning shore.
Read more of Philip Larkin’s poems.
Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness by John Donne
‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness’ is a six-stanza poem. It, like the previous example, only uses quintains. There are six sets of five lines in this poem, using a rhyme scheme of ABABB. The poem also uses iambic pentameter, a common feature of this era of poetry. Here is the first stanza:
Since I am coming to that holy room,
Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.
Here, Donne begins by conceding the fact that he is “coming to that holy room,” meaning heaven. It is his ultimate destination to be entered into sooner than he might like. He continues on to describe the “room” in greater detail. It is wonderful in that there is the “choir of saints for evermore.” All who enter heaven, like the speaker himself, are “made [God’s] music.”
Discover more John Donne poems.
Poets use quintains when they want to create five-line stanzas. These stanzas are commonly use
A quintain is a stanza that has five lines. These lines can use specific rhyme schemes or be written in free verse (without a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern). They can also reach different lengths depending on what the poet wants to accomplish.
A quintain is a five-line poem. This means that any collection of five lines, as long as they aren’t separated out into even shorter stanzas, can be considered a quintain.
A four-line stanza is a quatrain. Other stanzas are: quintain—five lines, sestet—six lines, tercet—three lines, and a couplet— two lines.
Related Literary Terms
- Burns Stanza: named for Scottish poet Robert Burns who popularized its use. It is a six-line stanza form that uses a rhyme scheme of AAABAB, and lines of tetrameter and dimeter.
- Chaucerian Stanza: lso known as rhyme royal, is a stanza form introduced by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. It’s seven lines long and uses the rhyme scheme ABABBCC.
- Hymn Stanza: uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
- Octave: an eight-line stanza or poem.
- Refrain: used in poems and songs. They are repeated sections of text that usually appear at the end of a stanza or verse.