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What is a quatrain in poetry?

By BBC Maestro

When you’re exploring the world of poetry, you’ll often come across formal-sounding poetic forms such as the quatrain.  

At its simplest, a quatrain is a pleasingly straightforward group of four lines with a set rhyming scheme. The quatrain can be a lovely, natural way to write, while its variations can also be used to convey certain tones, from sing-song to formal. 
 
In her BBC Maestro course, poet Carol Ann Duffy recommends learning about different poetic forms – “I think it’s essential on your journey that you make yourself familiar with the forms and shapes of poetry.” 
 
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the quatrain. 

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What is a quatrain in a poem? 

A quatrain is a rhymed grouping of four lines. The rhyming scheme can vary: it could be an ABAB rhyme, or an ABBA, or an AABB… In fact, there are no fewer than 15 different variations. These  rhyming schemes are used to create different effects. 
 
The quatrain can make up the entire 4-line poem or it could be a single stanza in a longer piece. A quatrain can even form a section of a 14-line sonnet. A 4-line stanza is quite short but gives the poet enough space to convey a complete idea or section of narrative. It’s much easier to express a thought or describe a character or event in four lines than it is in a couplet (which is just two lines). In the case of a long poem, think of the quatrains as acting like paragraphs in prose. 

What are the different quatrain forms? 

1. Heroic stanza

ABAB or AABB

This is also known as an elegiac stanza. This type of quatrain is written in iambic pentameter, which is a ten-syllable line with the stress placed on every other beat. (To get the idea, say the first line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 out loud to yourself. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is a perfect illustration of how the beats fall in iambic pentameter.)

2. Ballad stanza

ABAB or ABCB

You’ll often find this quatrain used in modern songwriting, although its name comes from the much older ballad tradition of long narrative poems. It can be in iambic tetrameter or iambic trimeter (eight or six syllables respectively).

3. Ruba’i

AABA

There’s quite a story behind this ancient poetic form. The 11th-century Persian poet Omár Khayyám became popular among western poets in the 18th- and 19th-centuries, leading to the adoption of the ruba’i format, then sometimes called the Persian stanza

4. Envelope quatrain

ABBA

This type of quatrain gets its name from the first and last rhymes enclosing the middle two in an ABBA form. The envelope quatrain appears in Petrarchan (Italian) sonnets and is known as an Italian quatrain. It has the same rhyming scheme but must be written in iambic pentameter. 

5. Memoriam stanza

ABBA

This quatrain is named after one of its most famous uses, in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”. It shares the ABBA structure of the envelope quatrain; however, has the additional requirement of iambic tetrameter (eight syllables with four stressed beats). 

snow covered thick woods

Famous quatrain poem examples 

Now we’ve looked at the main variations, let’s see how these forms are applied to some famous quatrain poetry. 

Heroic or elegiac stanza

Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is perhaps the best-known example of poetry written in heroic stanzas, hence the form’s alternative name of elegiac stanza.

 The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, 
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea, 
The plowman homeward plods his weary way, 
And leaves the world to darkness and to me. 

Ballad stanza

This is used in one of the most famous quatrain poems, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. By using this form, Coleridge is writing his long narrative poem in a traditional storytelling style. 
 
It is an ancient Mariner, 
And he stoppeth one of three. 
By thy long grey bears and glittering eye, 
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me? 

Ruba’i

One of the best-loved uses of this ancient form is in Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. The distinctive AABA rhyming scheme gives the poem a melodic, almost song-like quality. 
 
Whose woods these are I think I know. 
His house is in the village though; 
He will not see me stopping here 
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Envelope quatrain

There’s a good example of an ABBA envelope quatrain in a Petrarchan sonnet written by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 16th century. Whoso List to Hunt has a certain frisson, as it’s believed that the poet wrote it about Queen Anne Boleyn: one of the riskier subjects for a love poem. 
 
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind, 
But as for me, hélas, I may no more. 
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore, 
I am of them that farthest cometh behind

Memoriam stanza

Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote In Memoriam A.H.H. as an elegy for his university friend Arthur Henry Hallam. The 723-stanza poem took him 16 years to complete, and in the process, he reinvented the envelope quatrain. The introduction of iambic tetrameter gives the poetry a natural-feeling rhythm that’s good to read out loud. Whether anyone would be ambitious enough to recite “In Memoriam” is another question… 

I envy not in any moods 
The captive void of noble rage, 
The linnet born within the cage, 
That never knew the summer woods: 

How to write a quatrain poem

If you’re feeling inspired to write a poem in quatrains, here’s a simple guide to getting started: 

  1. Choose a subject or theme that you’d like to write about. If you’ve been making notes in a poet’s journal, as Carol Ann Duffy recommends, take a look through and see which of your ideas inspire you.
  2. Which type of quatrain appeals to you? A heroic stanza can be a more straightforward place to start, as the rhyming schemes feel quite intuitive and the metre isn’t as strict. However, if you’re feeling ambitious and have a real story to tell, try the ballad stanza.
  3. Write your first line. Remember – this doesn’t have to be the first line, and you can start halfway through the poem if you prefer. Now start to build up the other lines around your first line, until you have a complete quatrain.
  4. Read your quatrain out loud. Does the rhythm and flow feel right? Rework and revisit until it feels right.
  5. Keep adding quatrains if you want to write a longer poem. If you’re running out of rhymes for your scheme, pick up a rhyming dictionary: there’s no such thing as cheating when it comes to writing original poetry. You can also use slant rhymes (close rhymes) in a quatrain. 

Enjoy experimenting with this style of poetry. You never know: the quatrain could end up being your poetic form of choice. 

To find out more about different poetic forms, explore the BBC Maestro poetry course, taught by Carol Ann Duffy. She shares her tips and techniques with you, while inspiring you to create poetry of your own. 

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