Verse form consisting of tercets, or three-line stanzas, in which the second line of each rhymes with the first and third lines of the next. The series ends with a separate line that rhymes with the second line of the last stanza, so that the rhyme scheme is aba, bcb, cdc, elipsis, yzy, z. Dante, in The Divine Comedy (circa 1310–14), was the first to use terza rima in a long poem. A demanding form, it has not been widely adopted in languages less rich in rhymes than Italian. It was introduced into England by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 16th century. Poets who have experimented with terza rima include Percy B. Shelley, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and W.H. Auden; Derek Walcott's book-length Omeros is written in modified terza rima.
Learn more about terza rima with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Terza rima is a three-line stanza using chain rhyme in the pattern a-b-a, b-c-b, c-d-c, d-e-d. There is no limit to the number of lines, but poems or sections of poems written in terza rima end with either a single line or couplet repeating the rhyme of the middle line of the final tercet. The two possible endings for the example above are d-e-d, e or d-e-d, e-e. There is no set rhythm for terza rima, but in English, iambic pentameters are generally preferred.
The first known use of terza rima is in Dante's Divina Commedia. In creating the form, Dante may have been influenced by the sirventes, a lyric form used by the Provencal troubadours. The three-line pattern may have been intended to suggest the Holy Trinity. After Dante, other Italian poets, including Petrarch and Boccaccio, used the form.
The first English poet to write in terza rima was Geoffrey Chaucer, who used it for his Complaint to His Lady. Although a difficult form to use in English because of the relative paucity of rhyme words available in what is, in comparison with Italian, an overly inflected language, terza rima has been used by Milton, Byron (in his Prophecy of Dante) and Shelley (in his Ode to the West Wind and The Triumph of Life). A number of 20th century poets also employed the form. These include Archibald MacLeish, W. H. Auden, Andrew Cannon, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, Derek Walcott, Clark Ashton Smith, and James Merrill.
Not surprisingly, the form has also been used in translations of the Divina Commedia. Perhaps the most notable examples are Robert Pinsky's version of the Inferno and Laurence Binyon's version of the entire work.
Acquainted With the Night by Robert Frost :
Two tercets from Chaucer's Complaint to his Lady:
A section from Shelley's Ode to the West Wind with a couplet ending: