A stanza is a unit of poetry that forms a smaller unit within a poem. Stanzas can be identified in a poem since they are usually separated with a blank line or an indentation.
A stanza in poetry is analogous to a paragraph in written prose.
Poets often use stanzas to visually separate and create space between different ideas. This helps readers digest the content of the poem in small sections.
Stanzas are most commonly separated by line breaks; however, this isn't always the case. Some poems are organised differently. Some us changes in meter or rhyme scheme to differentiate between stanzas.
Fig. 1 - A person writing a stanza.
The pronunciation and etymology of stanza
The word stanza is pronounced as: stan-zuh.
It was originally an Italian word from the late 16th century meaning 'standing place'.
What is the purpose of stanzas in poetry?
Poets use the length, rhyming scheme and meter of their stanzas in a variety of ways.
Stanzas form the backbone of a poems' structural framework. In the poem, 'Out, Out' (1916) by Robert Frost, the entire structure of the poem is composed of a single 34 line stanza.
The first stanza in a poem sets the overall pattern of a poem. This is especially important in formal verse poems that follow a specific meter and rhyme scheme.
In the poem, 'Annabel Lee' (1849) by Edgar Allen Poe, the structure and rhyme scheme from the first stanza is consistent in all five stanzas.
3. Change in the mood
The separation that stanzas create helps the reader to be aware of a shift in the mood or tone of a poem. The poem 'To Autumn' (1820) by John Keats uses stanzas effectively to change the mood. Transitioning from the second stanza, Keats starts the third stanza by asking 'Where are the songs of spring?'' which creates a nostalgic mood.
Types of stanzas
Generally speaking, stanzas are categorised according to the number of lines they contain.
- A couplet
A stanza with two lines. Couplets typically have a consistent meter and an end rhyme.
- A tercet
A stanza with three lines. A popular poetic form that uses tercets includes the terza rima and villanelles. Tercets usually follow a rhyme scheme of AAA or ABA.
- A quatrain
A stanza with four lines. Ballads and sestinas are traditional forms of poetry that use quatrains. Quatrains normally follow a rhyme scheme of AAAA, ABAB or AABB.
- A cinquain/quintain
A stanza with five lines.
- A sestet
A stanza with six lines. Sestets are most commonly used in sonnets.
Examples of stanzas
Some poets use stanzas that have a regular meter and rhyme throughout; however, this isn't a requirement. Let's take a look at some stanzas from famous poems.
'The Road Not Taken' - Robert Frost (1916)
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I couldn't travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same…
In this example, the two stanzas use a regular meter and rhyme scheme. Frost writes this poem by using five lines per stanza (known as a quintain) and nine syllables per line. Although this poem doesn't have a strict verse form it does follow a strict rhyme of ABAAB and meter which is characteristic of much older poems.
The Road Not Taken is a narrative poem. Frost writes the first stanza from the perspective of a person who is faced with 'two roads'. He is not sure which one to take. The second stanza shifts to the decision made by the speaker.
'Sonnet 18' - William Shakespeare (1609)
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dim'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor loose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest;
As long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
This example from Shakespeare demonstrates how stanzas are used in English sonnets. The first three stanzas are quatrains (a four-line stanza) that have the rhyme scheme ABAB, CDCD, EFEF. The final stanza is a closed couplet with the rhyme scheme GG. Shakespeare has written this sonnet in the meter known as iambic pentameter, which is a verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable.
'A sharply worded silence' - Louise Glück (2014)
Because it is the nature of garden paths
to be circular, each night, after my wanderings,
I would find myself at my front door, staring at it,
barely able to make out, in darkness, the glittering knob.
It was, she said, a great discovery, still my real life.
But certain nights, she said, the moon was barely visible through the clouds
and the music never started. A night of pure discouragement.
And still the next night I would begin again, and often all would be well.
Loise Gluck writes this poem in free verse, which means it doesn't follow a particular meter or rhyme scheme. The stanza helps with the pacing of the poem, allowing the reader to visualise a pause or a change in the focus.
The stanzas in this poem have an irregular structure. It starts with a four-line quatrain, followed by a single line, and finishes with a three-line tercet.
Notice how the use of stanzas in this poem are used to separate different thoughts, just like paragraphs in prose.
Less common types of stanzas
Not all types of stanzas are defined by the number of lines. Some special stanza types follow a particular rhyme scheme or meter, and some appear in unique poetic forms.
A stanza with eight lines in iambic pentameter. Octaves have a large variety of different rhyme schemes. They are commonly found in sonnets and other forms of poetry.
A ballad stanza
A type of four-line stanza, a ballad stanza is a rhyming quatrain that generally uses the ABCB rhyme scheme. This type of stanza is used in folk songs. A well-known example of a ballad is Edgar Allan Poe's 'Annabel Lee' (1849):
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
An isometric punch
A type of stanza that has the same meter in every line.
A heteromeric stanza
A type of stanza where every line has a different length.
Difference between stanza and a strophe
It can be difficult to distinguish between the terms stanza and strophe since they are both terms that refer to how lines are grouped in poetry. The terms stanza and strophe can be used interchangeably in certain cases, but there are clear differences.
Consistent line groupings
If the lines of groupings are consistent and follow traditional rules then the term strophe cannot be used. In these cases, stanza is the appropriate term.
For example, if a poem is made up of line groupings that are all quatrains then it would be referred to as a stanza.
Inconsistent line groupings
When the line groupings in a poem don't have a consistent length throughout, then the term strophe is appropriate and can be interchanged with the term stanza. This is why groups of lines that are written in free verse can be referred to as strophes or stanzas.
Stanza - Key takeaways
- A stanza is a group of lines in a poem that form a unit.
- Stanzas in poetry are similar to paragraphs in prose.
- Poets use stanzas to control the structure, pattern and mood of a poem.
- Stanzas are normally categorised by the number of lines they contain.
- Stanzas and Strophes refer to a group of lines in a poem but they have specific uses.
Robert Frost, 'The Road Not Taken', 1916.
William Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 18', 1609.
Louise Gluck, 'Faithful and Virtuous Night', 2014.