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Tercet

A tercet is a three-line stanza. It is a common stanza form, although not as common as the couplet and quatrain.

Tercets are usually slower-paced, allowing the reader more time to focus on the subject matter. They can stand alone as individual stanzas, or they can be incorporated into a longer set of lines. The lines might be the same lengths or drastically different lengths. It’s easy to imagine how the first line might contain two or three words, the second, five, or six, and the third, seven or eight. 

Tercet pronunciation: tur-set
Tercet definition and examples


Definition of Tercet 

A tercet is a set of three lines in poetry. It is brief, can be used to enhance the flow of a piece of poetry, and provide writers with the ability to experiment with rhyme schemes. Depending on how the three lines are used, whether they’re within a longer stanza or by themselves, they may be more or less obvious. The tercet might have the rhyme scheme of ABA, ABC, or several other combinations. Or, it might not rhyme at all. Each line might be an individual sentence, or all three lines could make up one sentence. 

Types of Tercets 

There are a few different types of common tercets in poetry. These are noted by their rhyme scheme and the traditional way they’re used. Some of these examples are parts of larger rhyme schemes as well. 

  • Triplet: a triplet is a tercet with three rhyming lines of AAA. This is an easy way to emphasize a particular section of poetry within a longer poem. Someone who is very interested in consistent rhyming might use several triplets with different rhymes in their work. 
  • Haiku: the haiku is another common type of tercet. It’s an incredibly popular Japanese poetic form containing a structured set of syllables for each line. Haikus are based around nature and the changing seasons. 
  • Terza Rima: one of the best-known tercet rhyme schemes is terza rima. It is built around several tercets following an interlocking rhyme scheme of ABABCBCDC, and so on. 
  • Enclosed Tercet: this form follows a rhyme scheme of ABA, a very commonly used pattern in poetry. 
  • Sicilian Tercet: uses iambic pentameter, meaning each line is separated out into five sets of two beats. The first of which is unstressed, and the second of which is stressed. 
  • Villanelle: this kind of tercet uses five sets of three lines and one set of five lines. It follows the complex rhyme scheme in which the first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated, alternatively, in the next five.


Examples of Tercets 

The Eagle by Alfred Lord Tennyson

‘The Eagle’ is a beautiful short poem that depicts the power of the eagle. The poet celebrates the bird’s agility and incredible speed as it swoops down to catch its prey. The poem is separated into two sets of three lines. These triplets rhyme AAA BBB and use iambic tetrameter. Here is the first stanza: 

He clasps the crag with crooked hands; 

Close to the sun in lonely lands, 

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands. 

The next three lines use the end words “crawls,” “walls,” and “falls.” The pattern is perfect and quite effective. Readers should walk away from the text impressed by the eagle and by Tennyson’s depiction of him. 

Discover more Alfred Lord Tennyson poems. 

Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley 

Ode to the West Wind’ focuses on death’s necessary destruction and the possibilities of rebirth. The poem is famously written in the terza rima form. The lines use an interlocking and repeating pattern. The first two stanzas read: 

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

These lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABA BCB. Readers might note the use of a few half-rhymes in the poem. This means that the rhymes are imperfect but still correspond in regard to their consonant or assonant sounds. Plus, the majority of the poem is in iambic pentameter. 

Explore Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry. 

The Convergence of the Twain by Thomas Hardy 

In this eleven-section poem, Hardy uses triplets. The poem follows a pattern of AAA BBB CCC, changing end sounds as the lines progress. The pattern is steady and predictable. It has been described by some as mimicking the sound of the ocean. Here are the first two stanzas of the poem: 

In a solitude of the sea

Deep from human vanity,

And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

Steel chambers, late the pyres

Of her salamandrine fires,

Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

The rhyme scheme is quite easy to pick out in these lines as Hardy describes the wreck of the Titanic.

Read more Thomas Hardy poems. 

Why Do Writers Use Tercets? 

Writers use tercets when they want to deliver three important lines in a group. Alternatively, they might use them consistently throughout the poem, focusing on maintaining a clear and structured pattern. Usually, when a poet uses this format, they’re trying to slow the reader down and provide them with the opportunity to view the three lines together for a particular reason. Sometimes, tercets will contain individual thoughts, while other times they’ll just be part of a longer phrase or sentence. 

FAQs 

What is a tercet?

A tercet is a set of three lines. It could stand alone as its own stanza or be incorporated in a larger body of text. 

Do tercets rhyme? 

Sometimes. If the writer wants to use a specific rhyme scheme, the tercets might rhyme AAA, ABA, ABC, or several other possible variants. They might also be written in free verse

What rhyme schemes use tercets? 

Rhyme schemes like terza rima and villanelles use tercets. These patterns depend on the lines being separated out into groups of three with reoccurring rhymes. 

What poems use tercets?

Some poems that use tercets include ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’ by Robert Herrick, The Wakingby Theodore Roethke, ‘The Eagle’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and ‘Boot and Saddle’ by Robert Browning.

How many lines does a tercet have? 

A tercet always has three lines. Sometimes it’s referred to as a triplet. 


  • Hymn stanza: a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
  • Trimeter: one type of meter used in poetry, in which each line has three metrical feet.
  • Villanelle: a nineteen-line poem that is divided into five tercets or sets of three lines and one concluding quatrain, or set of four lines.
  • Stanza: one of the most important fundamental elements of a poem. It is the unit of writing poems are composed of.


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