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What Are the Origins of the Quatrain?
The quatrain emerged as a poetic form in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. It became more popular with the rise of polymath poets, who were experts in many different subjects. During the eleventh century, also known as the Dark Ages, a Persian astronomer, mathematician, philosopher, and poet named Omár Khayyám made sole use of the quatrain in a book of connected verses entitled “Rubáiyát,” or “quatrains” in Arabic. It was translated by English poet Edward Fitzgerald in the 1800s, helping its resurgence as a popular poetic stanza.
Emily Dickinson, a poet from the nineteenth century, embraced quatrains, using them in most of her work, like this stanza from “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers”:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
What Is the Purpose of a Quatrain in Poetry?
When writing poetry, the selection of literary devices, poetic lineation, and stanzas are as important as choosing words. Quatrains are a popular form of verse in poetry because of the following characteristics:
- Length. The quatrain form is long enough for a short narrative. The four-line stanza gives a poet room to convey a full thought, or two, in one verse. While a couplet’s brevity forces a limited use of words, a quatrain allows for a fuller expression of an idea.
- Rhyme scheme possibilities. There are fifteen possible rhyme combinations that can be used in a quatrain. Poets can utilize a single rhyme scheme or type of quatrain throughout a poem, or combine quatrains with different stanzas and rhyme patterns into one poem for a more playful tone.
- Versatility. The four lines of a quatrain can be of different lengths. They can include a variety of rhyme schemes that can be paired with any one of a number of meters. The possibilities are almost endless. One variation of a quatrain can carry a light, punchy poem, while another supports a heavier sonnet. This versatility is attractive to poets. One of the most adaptable features of a quatrain is its ability to be a free verse—a stanza without rhyme or set rhythm.
What Are the 5 Different Types of Quatrains?
Quatrain stanzas are divided into categories based on their rhyme scheme and meter. Some of the more widely-used quatrains in poetry include:
- Heroic stanza. Also known as elegiac stanza, a heroic quatrain can follow an ABAB or an AABB rhyme, the latter also called a double couplet. This quatrain is written in iambic pentameter—five double beats, or ten syllables, with emphasis placed on every second beat.
- Ruba’i. A Persian quatrain is known as a ruba’i. English poets rediscovered the form, first used by Omár Khayyám in the eleventh century, in the eighteenth century, and incorporated the structure of quatrain into their work. A ruba’i has a rhyme scheme of AABA.
- Ballad stanza. Ballad stanzas have an alternating rhyme scheme, or a cross rhyme— ABAB. The lines switch between iambic tetrameter (eight syllables) and iambic trimeter (six syllables). Many songwriters use the ballad stanza due to its melodic rhythm.
- Envelope quatrain. This four-line verse with an ABBA rhyme scheme is known as an envelope quatrain due to the first and fourth rhyming lines enclosing the rhyming second and third lines. Popular in Italian sonnets, the Italian quatrain is a more specific style, employing this scheme in iambic pentameter.
- Memoriam stanza. An envelope quatrain written in iambic tetrameter—eight beats per line—it is called a memoriam stanza. This stanza is named after Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam.”
Famous Examples of Quatrain in Poetry
Thomas Gray’s poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is an example of a heroic stanza:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
“Rubáiyát,” Omár Khayyám’s revered work, is a lyric poem, a reflective work that explored life and death, composed of 101 quatrains stanzas like this one:
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.
Robert Frost, like other poets influenced by the translation of “Rubáiyát,” adopted the quatrain pattern for his work, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
William Wordsworth composed “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways” with ballad stanzas:
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
William Butler Yeats used the envelope quatrain in his poem “When You Are Old”:
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” demonstrates the formation of the memoriam quatrain:
I envy not in any moods
The captive void of noble rage,
The linnet born within the cage,
That never knew the summer woods:
I envy not the beast that takes
His license in the field of time,
Unfetter'd by the sense of crime,
To whom a conscience never wakes;
Nor, what may count itself as blest,
The heart that never plighted troth
But stagnates in the weeds of sloth;
Nor any want-begotten rest.
I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
Learn more about reading and writing poetry with US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.