Writing

Poetry 101: What Is a Tercet in Poetry? Learn Different Types of Tercets in Poetry With Examples

Written by MasterClass

Apr 30, 2019 • 3 min read

With an odd number of lines, the tercet is less popular than the couplet (a two-line stanza) or the quatrain (a four-line stanza). The pace of a tercet is often slower, lending itself to a more somber tone.

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What Is a Tercet in Poetry?

A tercet is a stanza of poetry with three lines; it can be a single-stanza poem or it can be a verse embedded in a larger poem. A tercet can have several rhyme schemes, or might not have any lines of poetry that rhyme at all.

What Is the Purpose of a Tercet in Poetry?

Tercets might be limited in language and lines, but there are advantages to writing poetry that incorporates this unique stanza.

  • Enforce brevity. Poetry is already a concentrated narrative. Tercet poems enforce brevity even further. Like in a haiku, poets use minimal language to convey an idea or paint a picture in a tercet. The effect is a memorable poem that invites the reader to fill in the blanks.
  • Build momentum. Tercets can help a poem flow better. The rhyme scheme of a terza rima, in particular, creates interlocking tercets which push the momentum of the narrative forward.
  • Experiment with rhyme. Tercets are a good opportunity to experiment with different rhymes: the first line and last line can rhyme while the middle line can stand on its own.

5 Types of Tercets in Poetry

Tercets are classified by the arrangement of rhymes, structure, and, occasionally, origin. Here are five different types of tercets.

  1. Triplet. A triplet is a tercet that has three rhyming lines. This configuration is labeled as AAA.
  2. Haiku. Originally from Japanese poetry, a haiku is a three-line poem without a rhyme. In Japan, poets historically wrote haikus to create imagery around the themes of nature and the seasons. Learn how to write your own haiku here.
  3. Enclosed tercet. A tercet with a rhyme scheme of ABA, where only the first and third lines rhyme.
  4. Sicilian tercet. A Sicilian tercet is a more rhythmically-structured enclosed tercet and is written in iambic pentameter—a ten-syllable count.
  5. Terza rima. While other stanzas can stand on their own, a terza rima is built on interdependent tercets. The first stanza is an envelope tercet or ABA. The middle line of the first stanza rhymes with the first and third lines of the second stanza, and so on, for a rhyme scheme of ABA BCB CDC. Stanzas are woven together creating interlocking tercets.

4 Examples of Tercets in Poetry

The mono-rhymed triplet stanza is rare, appearing more in historic poetry like Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Eagle”:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas used enclosed tercets in “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Robert Frost employed Sicilian tercets in his piece “Acquainted With the Night”:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

Italian writer Dante Alighieri created the terza rima when he penned the thirteenth-century poetic narrative “The Divine Comedy.” English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley borrowed Dante’s terza rima for “Ode To the West Wind”:

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