Understanding Poetry 3: Short Forms

A roundup of several celebrated forms of the short poem.

Heroic Couplets

Building on Shape

In his tribute to the Brooklyn Bridge, Hart Crane wondered, “How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!” A poet is in a good position to marvel at construction, being in the construction business.

Last lesson we looked at the nuts and bolts of poetic shape — the way lines hold together through meter and coherency of sounds. Now we’re ready to step back and look at how lines of poems hold together in larger forms. The fit of form — its exact suitability to hold the meaning the poem expresses — can give rise to a sense of miraculous inevitability. Like any work of art, once it’s filled out into its shape, it’s very difficult to think of a poem as a product of “mere toil.”

At the end of this lesson, you’ll be familiar with some of the smaller fixed shapes of poetry — the couplet, the stanza, song forms such as the villanelle and sestina, and the mighty sonnet. You’ll also have dissected a sonnet fully. But before all that, let’s look at the ways lines hold together.

The March of Couplets

A couplet links two lines together, with similarly stressed meter and emphatic rhyme. It’s a small but infinitely flexible form, suited for comparisons and contrasts.

We see couplets used especially in older poems; they reached a zenith in the eighteenth century, when the “heroic couplet” was at peak use. It was then that the highest subject matters — the restoration of a king, the order of the universe — were pressed into iambic pentameter couplets.

Heroic couplets depend on subtle contrasts of meter. Track the contrasting flow of lines, paying close attention to meter variation and caesuras. Often, you’ll find miracles of invention.

Let’s look at a few lines from John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel (MP, p.125), a long poem that describes the rise and fall of King David’s illegitimate son, Absalom. I’ll number the lines so we can refer to them easily:

Of all this numerous progeny was none 1
So beautiful, so brave, as Absalom: 2
Whether, inspired by some diviner lust, 3
His father got him with a greater gust, 4
Or that his conscious destiny made way, 5
By manly beauty, to imperial sway. 6
Early in foreign fields he won renown, 7
With kings and states allied to Israel’s crown: 8
In peace the thoughts of war he could remove, 9
And seemed as he were only born for love. 10

Notice how all the lines are end-stopped and most of the rhymes are true. When they’re not, that’s a subtle signal: “none” is a bit off from “Absalom”; same with “remove” and “love.” The first off-rhyme emphasizes how Absalom truly stands out from his siblings; the second gives an ominous indication of the difficulties he’ll encounter because of his illegitimate status.

Look at the contrasting rhythm of these couplets. In what way do they diverge from iambic pentameter and from each other’s flow? Line 1 packs in two dactyls (“numerous progeny”) before slamming into a spondee (“was none”). Line 2 continues both trends — the flowing dactyl of “beautiful,” the emphatic emphasis of repeating “so,” and comma-fostered caesuras. The nature of Absalom is reflected here: he disrupts the normal flow of succession; he stands with emphatic distinction above the rest. His very name, Absalom, guarantees that he’ll stand out in an iambic pentameter poem.

The Couplets’ Hero

The mighty heroic couplet dominated English verse for more than 150 years. Between the years of 1630 and 1780, any poet who hoped to be taken seriously had to obey their tight rules. But long before Alexander Pope was ever lisping in numbers, couplets won the imprimatur of no less a titan than Geoffrey Chaucer. He’s credited with popularizing the form way back in the 1300s. Look at the opening of “The Canterbury Tales” (AFP, p. 51).

We could spend a lot of time on each of these couplets, seeing how they share and answer each other’s metrical variations. Sexual release is suggested by the trochee and caesura in line 3, which can be ironically lined up against the iambic regularity of line 4. Lines 5 and 6 stage steady progression: 5 sets it up, and 6 fills it out with evenly proportioned halves. The metrical disruptions of “Early” and “allied” suggest a precocious young hero. And so on.

This intricate form, appropriate to an age of reason, fell out of favor in later years — when revolution and subjectivity would chafe against such a tight pattern. The use of a couplet from the nineteenth century forward has to be somewhat nostalgic or ironic. We’ll look at an example of that in Lesson 6. But for now, let’s move on to a larger and more flexible grouping of poetic lines — the stanza.

Addition and Subtraction

For a good example of how stanzas can quietly enact the drama they describe, turn to Thomas Hardy’s account of the sinking of the Titanic, “The Convergence of the Twain” (MP, 145). Each of its 11 stanzas is built with two trimeter lines, followed by one hexameter line. 3 + 3 = 6. The poem thus mimics the “welding” of “twin halves of one august event:” the Titanic, the iceberg, their horrible collision.

The Stanza

“Stanza” comes from Italian and Latin roots; it means a room to stand in, to live in. In poetry, when a group of lines stand together, sounding repeated metrical patterns and/or rhymes, that’s a stanza.

What effect do stanzas have?

  • When a stanza is made up of similarly built lines (fairly regular meter, equal length), they’re called “isometric.” These stanzas emphasize order and coherency — often a welcome undertow, given that subject matter is liable to leap around from fleas to stars and back.
  • When stanzas are made up of lines that have different rhythms or lengths, they’re called “heterometric” (see MP, p. 137) — the stanzas mark themselves as discrete units to be compared against other stanzas.

In both cases, stanzas give us a way of measuring the development of a poem as a whole. How is the poem divided up into “rooms?” Are these “rooms” similarly built? What kind of activity goes on inside each one?

Emily Dickinson’s haunting “I died for Beauty — but was scarce” (MP, p. 145) is an excellent example of the way stanzas can express the meaning they enclose. The poem is divided into three stanzas of very regular meter: each one repeats an iambic tetrameter-iambic trimeter alternation. But what happens in these “adjoining Room[s]” is quite different:

  • The first stanza features enjambment between lines 1-2 and 3-4 and the emphatic rhyme of “Tomb” and “Room.” Interaction is therefore clearly stressed.
  • The second stanza features quotations and, in its third line, caesura. There’s no rhyme, only the off-rhyme of “replied” and “said.” For all the indications of communication, disruption and difference are prominent, compared to stanza one.
  • In the final stanza, rampant capitalization subsides and disappears in the final line. There isn’t even any off-rhyme. The final repetition of “s” sounds — or sibilants — could well strike you, given a scarcity of them before. The immediate dialogue of stanza 2 is smothered, and dashes take over the end of every line.

Communication and the sealing off of it is enacted as we move through the three stages of Dickinson’s poem.

Stanzas perform an inexhaustible variety of functions and take on a vast amount of forms. Pages 140-153 of MP include stanzas that emphasize repetition, growth, revision, and conversion. All of them enact some kind of enclosure.

Very specific lines of poetic traditions are drawn based on forms of stanza. For example, during the Renaissance, Edmund Spenser developed a specific structure of stanza, based on Italian models. You can see an example of it on p.141 of MP. The rules are intricate: each stanza is made up of nine iambic lines — each with 10 syllables, except the last, which has 12.

The rhyme scheme, or the arrangement of rhymes, of the Spenserian stanza is ababbcbcc. The letter a indicates the end rhyme of the first line, b indicates the next unique end rhyme, c indicates the next, and so on. So, in the Spenserian stanza, lines 1 and 3, which end in “ensewed” and “viewed,” are designated by a; lines 2, 4, 5, and 7, which end with “space,” “face,” “case,” and “place,” respectively, are designated by b, and so on.

By following these rules, Spenser developed a very recognizable form, one that braids rhyme in a specific way and spills out into broader conclusions. Poets long after Spenser — for example, Lord Byron — took up this developed form to respond to a tradition. Like Emily Dickinson’s contiguous rooms, and like stanzas standing up against each other, poets adopt stanza forms to echo and to contrast.

Now let’s expand our scope a little and turn to larger fixed patterns of lines. If you like rhyme, echo, and harmony, these will be music to your ears.

A Lost Drama

Nobody would say the villanelle was a natural form for storytelling: it’s far too repetitious. But Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” (MP, p. 11) suggests a great deal of narrative that goes untold — smothered, perhaps, under its mantra that “losing isn’t hard to master.” Not knowing the reason for all these losses makes the tone tricky. Is it truly complacent? Is it bitter?

Forms of Song

Many of the fixed forms of poems help to remind us of poetry’s musical past. Lines braid, like lyrics; stanzas repeat, like refrains; even the names of these forms evoke song. Many of these in English have been modified from Mediterranean origins. Some forms evoke wandering troubadours or age-old folk songs, and thus carry with them instant nostalgia — which poets can support or resist.

Let’s look briefly at three examples: the villanelle, the sestina, and the pantoum. We’ll save another prominent song form — the ballad — for next lesson, when we look at longer forms.

The Villanelle

An intricate braiding of 19 lines, many of them repeated, divided into five stanzas. Stanzas, thus, mirror each other, and new lines are slow to roll out. See rules on p. 5 of MP.


One predominant mood or idea, since progress is so constricted. Subject often tends to involve nostalgia or loss, since the repetition of the form counters the passage of time.


  • For a pure form of villanelle, follow the tendrils of Ernest Dowson’s “Villanelle of His Lady’s Treasures” (MP, p. 9).
  • Dylan Thomas’s famous “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” (MP, p.12) is a great display of theme matching form: repetition and mirroring buttress the protest against death.
  • James Merrill’s “The World and the Child” (MP, p.13) shows how much variety can be wrung out of the form, despite its many rules. Variations in punctuation and syntax let Merrill tell a whole story about the aspirations of a lonely child.
The Sestina

Thirty-nine unrhymed lines, divided up into six stanzas and a three-stanza envoi (or leave-taking). The lines all end in the same six words, whose order changes in a set pattern. The first line of a stanza repeats the same end word as the last line of the previous stanza. The envoi contains all six end-words. See rules on p. 21 of MP.


Hallucinatory or dreamlike, since the same words keep popping up in new contexts with striking regularity. Lack of rhyme and lengths of the poems increases this effect. Lines can sound more conversational, since they’re not bound to rhyme.


  • Edmund Spenser’s “Ye wastefull woodes” (MP, p. 25) shows what emotion can be wrung out of such a stylized form.
  • Barnabe Barnes’ “Sestine 4? (MP, p. 27) is a particularly clever use of the sestina’s echoes.
  • Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” (MP, p. 34) is a stunning display of rhetorical force; the peace-hating speaker wells up a call to arms that pumps new blood into this form.
  • Finally, Miller Williams’ “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina” (MP, p. 38) chops down each stanza by one foot, until all that’s left are the six key words, a graphic display of loneliness.
The Pantoum

Poem can be any length, divided into four line stanzas (or quatrains). The first and last line of the poem are the same. Lines repeat in a braiding pattern, somewhat like the villanelle, with special rules for the last stanza. Rhyme scheme is abab. See rules on p. 43, MP.


Almost like a chant, since there’s so much repetition. Pantoums tend to roll out one predominant mood or subject. The passage of time, or its strange non-passage, is often highlighted.


  • Austin Dobson’s “In Town” (MP, p. 45) conveys the form’s suitability for describing obsession and claustrophobia.
  • Carolyn Kizer’s “Parents’ Pantoum” (MP, p. 48) enacts a struggle between generations by setting modern language in this old form.
  • Nellie Wong’s “Grandmothers’s Song” (MP, p. 50) pays a ringing tribute to grandmothers “Sprinkled with Peking dust,” but there’s a similar sense of time’s contrasting tug: “Bound feet struggle to loosen free.”

Modern Variations

The sonnet might have thrived in the Renaissance, but every era since has found use for it. Notable later masters of it include John Milton, John Donne, John Keats, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and William Butler Yeats. Modernists such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and E.E. Cummings also had a lot of success with the form.

For a good idea of the variation possible in sonnets, read the examples in MP on pages 59-70.

The Sonnet

Sonnets have good reason to be beloved. They are at the same time compact and capacious — the Victorian poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti described the sonnet as a “Moment’s Monument.” Let’s run through some basics, and then you can apply what we’ve learned about form to two very different sonnets.

A sonnet is always 14 lines long, and traditionally these are in iambic pentameter. Two main variations of the sonnet exist:

  • Petrarchan
  • Shakespearean


The sonnet is another small gift from Italy. Petrarch’s sonnet sequence to his beloved Laura, written in the early 1300s, helped solidify the form’s association with love and short argument. The movement of the sonnet is dominated by a major “turn” in thought after eight lines, giving the last six lines the feeling of a response. Look at a typical Italian sonnet rhyme scheme, and you’ll see how it sets up a big pivot at the ninth line:

Petrarchan Sonnet Rhyme Scheme


The English revision of the sonnet is tied to the name of, arguably, the most poetic Englishman who ever lived. But it evolved, by necessity, before him because English has fewer rhymes than Italian. By dividing the form into quatrains and a final couplet, the poet could involve a greater variety of rhyming words. And the couplet leaves the reader with a final punch — a moral or summary or sharp contrast that makes for lively endings.

Shakespearean Sonnet Rhyme Scheme

Arrest that Minstrel!

The musical heritage of many forms of poetry helped to fuel a long-standing romantic image: the wandering minstrel. Minstrels were indeed common in medieval society, but by the Renaissance, many of them had worn out their welcome. A 1597 nuisance law in England even grouped them with “rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars.” The appearance of “minstrels” in American popular theater added another dubious layer to the term — but that’s another story.

Case Reading: A Sonnet by Shakespeare

The 154 sonnets we have by William Shakespeare each have their own personalities and effects. Nevertheless, their common technical achievement — their compressed pondering on large themes of love and immortality — make them as a whole a classic statement of the form. We’ll close the lesson by looking closely at a tricky one — Sonnet 138 (AFP, p. 250).

Befitting a sonnet all about trickery between a couple, the interaction of couplets is a crucial feature of this poem:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies . . .

In the space of two lines, the tension of the poem is spelled out. The iambic meter doesn’t kick in until after the emphatically stressed “swears,” and then turns regular, almost like a pattern or game. Consider the difference if “do” is left out of line 2.

At the same time, the caesura in line 2 contrasts with the unbroken line preceding it. It clues us in to a basic point-counterpoint pattern and presents two emphatically separate levels: surface (“I do believe her”) and hidden (“though I know she lies”) for both lovers to slip between.

We’re instantly dropped into a treacherous world, where a woman is goaded into defending herself falsely (why should she have to swear?) and her aging lover knows he’s fooling himself.

That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.

The second couplet rounds out the opening quatrain with a perfect mirror of treachery. The man now lies to the woman, and there’s every reason to think (thanks to the phrase “might think me”) that she does believe him, though she knows he lies.

Even the assonance in lines 3 and 4 undermine the man’s performance of “believing” — the “oo” repetition that rounds out line 3 is a little ridiculous and clashes with the “uh” assonance in line 4. “Youth” rhymes with “truth,” and we’re soon to learn that this man is not young. The meter stumbles a little on “unlearned.” His performance of credulity is far from smooth.

The ironies of the sonnet course through just one word of the fifth line:

Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young . . .

The pun on “vainly” is working overtime: Who is being vain? Who is thinking something in vain? Both of them, on both levels — a true marriage of unmeeting minds, echoed by the symmetrical misfits “thinking” and “thinks” of line 5.

The sonnet continues piling up false subtleties, each couplet undermining the last, until a climax of simplicity in line 8:

On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.

It’s the top irony of ironies, a final mismatch: the end of all this duplicity and subtlety is a simple truth.

The final quatrain amplifies this simplicity with relatively simple questions and answers: Why doesn’t she admit she lies? Why don’t I? Because we’re used to pretending. But the call and response set up here brings out a final subtlety: who is the narrator talking to and why? Is this simple picture of two loving liars just another false performance?

The sonnet’s summarizing couplet contains all the intricacies we’ve traced:

Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

Line 13 paints a complete and simple symmetry, behind which is all the twists and turns of the pun on “lie.” We’re left with “flattered” ringing in our ears, along with the rhyme of “me” with “be.” How might that man be flattering himself? Is “flattered” also a pun, pushed over by “lie?” And, once more and finally, what is the purpose of this riddling confession of symmetric lies?

It’s a good thing sonnets aren’t long! They can contain intricacies that have us pondering and re-pondering the interaction of specific lines.

Longer poems aren’t usually so compressed — they have to keep things moving. We’ll move on to them next.

Assignment: Sonnet
Closely read any one of the sonnets on pages 55-70 of MP.

  1. Is it Petrarchan or Shakespearean?
  2. Is there a “turn” of thought?
  3. Identify the tone of each quatrain or couplet.
  4. How do individual lines reflect the overall theme? (Pay close attention to meter, rhyme, and punctuation.)

How does the sonnet correspond to the Shakespearean sonnet we read together?

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