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Terza Rima

What is a terza rima?

Terza Rima, or "third rhyme," is a form of verse adapted from the Italian poets of the 13th century. It consists of tercets written in iambic pentameter (will be explained below) and the concluding line may be a couplet or a single line. Poet Dante is mostly accredited with inventing this form but it was widely used by many Classical poets such as Dante, Shelley, Lord Byron, W.H. Auden and Archibald MacLeish. 

What is iambic pentameter?

Iambic pentameter is the building block of about two-thirds of medieval and Renaissance English poetic forms. Iambic pentameter is used in rime royal, Chaucerian couplets, blank verse (one of the play-writing media of Shakespeare and his contemporaries), ballades, sestinas, and Spenserian stanza. Neoclassical poets used iambic pentameter in heroic couplets, and later poets have added their sonnets and works in blank verse to English and American literature. The upshot: people who master iambic pentameter and the ability to rhyme can write a good many medieval, Renaissance forms, eighteenth, and nineteenth century poetic forms. 

Iambic pentameter itself is a rhythmical pattern of syllables. The "iambic" part means that the rhythm goes from an unstressed syllable to a stressed one, as happens in words like divine, caress, bizarre, and delight. It sounds sort of like a heartbeat: daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. Each iambic unit is called a foot Iambic pentametric line is a sentence of 10 syllables with alternating strong and weak sounds < Refer to class 4- syllables for detailed explanation on strong and weak syllables>

An iambic line would look like this

STRONG/weak/ STRONG/weak/ STRONG/weak/ STRONG/weak/ STRONG/weak

When the line ends with a weak syllable it is said to have a feminine ending. IT can also look like this:


Since the above line ends with a strong syllable it is said to have a masculine ending.

Some examples of lines written in iambic pentameter

I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night
But surely Adam cannot be excused
We hold these truths to be self-evident 

(Thomas Jefferson in "The Declaration of Independence," line 1)

History Of Terza Rima

I quote from the 1911 edition of encyclopedia Love To Know  - 'Its origin has been attributed by some to the three-lined ritourhel, which was an early Italian form of popular poetry, and by others to the sirventes of the Provencal troubadours. The serventese in-catenato of the latter was an arrangement of triple rhymes, and unquestionably appears to have a relation with terza rima; this connection becomes almost a certainty when we consider the admiration expressed by the Tuscan poets of the i3th century for the metrical inventions of their forerunners, the Provencals. In Italian, a stanza of terza rima consists of three lines of eleven syllables, linked with the next stanza, and with the next, and so on, by a recurrence of rhymes: thus aba, bcb, cdc, ded, &c., so that, however long the poem is, it can be divided nowhere without severing the continuity of the rhyme. Schuchardt has developed an ingenious theory that these successive terzinas are really chains of ritournera just as ottava rima, according to the same theory, is a chain of rispetti. There were, unquestionably, chains of interwoven triple rhymed lines before the days of Dante, but it was certainly he who raised terza rima from the category of folk-verse, and gave it artistic character. What this character is may best be seen by an examination of the austere and majestic lines with which the Inferno opens, no more perfect example of terza rima having ever been composed:'

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyming scheme is interlocked and open and follows this pattern: Aba bcb cdc ded efe fgf and so on as long as it goes. Consider the following portion taken from Shelley 'Ode to the West Wind'

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,   a
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead   b
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing      a

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red.             b
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,                      c
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed . . .              b

There is no fixed length to a terza rima but they are generally used to tell a story of epic proportions and hence normally easily run over 100 lines. 

A very common way in which terza rimas are written to facilitate easy reading is breaking it up into parts. It may be written as a terza rima sonnet with each part being a sonnet or there may be 4 tercets and the last line may be a single line. With time, there have been many adaptations to the terza rima form, many poets don't even bother with iambic pentameter and merely use pentameter for ease of writing. Sometimes the length of the line varies too but all the lines remain of the same length invariably.

Here is the full version of 'Ode To The West Wind' by Shelley which is one of my favorite poems. It is divided into five parts with each part being a sonnet. It is written in iambic pentameter. Pay attention to the syllables and rhyme scheme, a good way to feel the iambic is to read it aloud, there will be a sing song rhythm to the words

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

The wing'd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill;

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!


Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of heaven and ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning! there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce M'nad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst: O hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull'd by the coil of his cryst'lline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Bai's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss, and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! if even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem'd a vision'I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
O! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd
One too like thee'tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own?
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth;
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

How to?

The main challenge is writing a terza rima is to get the iambic pentameter right. I would suggest before embarking on the poem, you write out about 50 sentences in iambic pentameter. They need not rhyme or make any kind of continual sense. They should just be a meaningful sentence of 10 syllables written in iambic.

Then proceed to lines that make sense when read continuously. Only when you are comfortable in this, should you proceed with the rhyming scheme.

The words you pick in a terza rima are very important, Since, you would be writing a rather lengthy poem take care that the words are not repetitive and boring. Infuse life into the poem by picking beautiful poetic words.

Similarly take care that the rhyme scheme doesn't seem forced, it should flow naturally.

Terza rima is a complex form which comes with lot of practice, but it a beautiful form for story telling. I suggest you read lots of terza rima. There is a whole lot of world out there just waiting to be discovered.     

Image (c) RK                  

Smitha Chakravarthula


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