Writing

Poetry 101: What Is a Stanza in Poetry? Stanza Definition with Examples

Written by MasterClass

Apr 17, 2019 • 6 min read

In poetry, a stanza is used to describe the main building block of a poem. It is a unit of poetry composed of lines that relate to a similar thought or topic—like a paragraph in prose or a verse in a song. Every stanza in a poem has its own concept and serves a unique purpose. A stanza may be arranged according to rhyming patterns and meters—the syllabic beats of a line. It can also be a free-flowing verse that has no formal structure.

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What Is a Stanza in Poetry?

A stanza is a series of lines grouped together in order to divide a poem; the structure of a stanza is often (though not always) repeated throughout the poem. Stanzas are separated from other stanzas by line breaks. Each stanza is a standalone unit that can either make up an entire poem or can build a bigger poem with other stanzas.

What Purpose Do Stanzas Serve in Poetry?

In Italian, the word “stanza” means “room.” Stanzas, then function in a poem like rooms function in a house. Acclaimed poet and former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins says: “You’re taking the reader on a tour of the poem, room by room, like taking someone through your house and describing it.” In this way, stanzas can be particularly revealing: the structure of a poem’s stanzas says a lot about the poem, just as the rooms in a house say a lot about the house.

A stanza can reveal the following about a poem:

  • Structure. A poem always has a structural framework in place. Stanzas are part of a poem’s architecture.
  • Pattern. In formal verse poetry, in which the poem follows a rhyme scheme and meter, the first stanza sets the pattern for the overall poem. The rhyme and rhythm used will repeat in the second stanza, and so on.
  • Organization. Often, the lines of a stanza explore a thought. As the poet moves onto the next thought, they might progress to a new stanza.
  • Set a mood. A break in between stanzas may signal a shift in mood or emotional tone.
  • Shape. The space around and between stanzas (or lack thereof), and the pattern they create on the page, defines the shape of a poem.

What Are the Different Types of Stanza?

Stanzas, like poems, come in all shapes and sizes. There are many different types and they are often classified by meters, rhyme schemes or how many groups of lines they have. Here are some different types of stanzas.

  • Monostich. A one-line stanza. Monostich can also be an entire poem.
  • Couplet. A stanza with two lines that rhyme.
  • Tercet. A stanza with three lines that either all rhyme or the first and the third line rhyme—which is called an ABA rhyming pattern. A poem made up of tercets and concludes with a couplet is called a “terza rima.”
  • Quatrain. A stanza with four lines with the second and fourth lines rhyming.
  • Quintain. A stanza with five lines.
  • Sestet. A stanza with six lines.
  • Septet. A stanza with seven lines. This is sometimes called a “rhyme royal.”
  • Octave. A stanza with eight lines written in iambic pentameter, or ten syllable beats per line. The more lines a stanza has the more varieties of rhyme and meter patterns. For example, “ottava rima” is an eight-line stanza with the specific rhyme scheme in which the first six lines have an alternating rhyme pattern and a couplet as the final two lines.
  • Isometric stanza. Isometric stanzas have the same syllabic beats, or the same meter, in every line.
  • Heterometric stanza. A stanza in which every line is a different length.
  • Spenserian stanza. Named after Edward Spenser’s unique stanza structure in his poem “The Faerie Queene.” A Spenserian stanza has nine line, eight in iambic pentameter—ten syllables in a line with emphasis on the second beat of each syllable—and a final line in iambic hexameter—a twelve-syllable beat line.
  • Ballad stanza. Often used in folk songs, a ballad stanza is a rhyming quatrain with four emphasized beats (eight syllables) in the first and third lines, and three emphasized beats (six syllables) in the second and fourth lines.

How Is Formal Verse Different from Free Verse in Poetry?

While there are any number of ways that poets can use stanzas to tell a story, the two broad approaches are formal verse and free verse.

Formal verse.

Formal verse is poetry that follows a strict repeating pattern, like sonnets or limericks. Stanzas in formal verse will have a matching meter and rhyme scheme. Robert Frost was an advocate for structure in poetry, and famously said that poetry in free verse was like playing tennis without a net. William Shakespeare’s sonnets are a classic example of how stanzas are used in formal verse.

“Sonnet 130”
William Shakespeare

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Free verse.

In free verse, poetry does not follow a strict rhyme or meter. Stanzas of different types can be used within a poem. Walt Whitman was the pioneer of free verse, using different kinds of stanzas of varying line lengths.

“To a Locomotive in Winter”
Walt Whitman

Thee for my recitative,
Thee in the driving storm even as now, the snow, the winter-day
declining,
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur’d dual throbbing and thy beat
convulsive,
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass, and silvery steel,
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating,
shuttling at thy sides,
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the
distance,
Thy great protruding head-light fix’d in front,
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate
purple,
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack,
Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle
of thy wheels,
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily following,
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering;
Type of the modern—emblem of motion and power—pulse of the
continent,
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I
see thee,
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.

Fierce-throated beauty!
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging
lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an
earthquake, rousing all,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.

Learn more about poetry from acclaimed poet and former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.