Poetic Form: Triolet

Year

2004

The triolet is a short poem of eight lines with only two rhymes used throughout. The requirements of this fixed form are straightforward: the first line is repeated in the fourth and seventh lines; the second line is repeated in the final line; and only the first two end-words are used to complete the tight rhyme scheme. Thus, the poet writes only five original lines, giving the triolet a deceptively simple appearance: ABaAabAB, where capital letters indicate repeated lines.

French in origin, and likely dating to the thirteenth century, the triolet is a close cousin of the rondeau, another French verse form emphasizing repetition and rhyme. The earliest triolets were devotionals written by Patrick Carey, a seventeenth-century Benedictine monk. British poet Robert Bridges reintroduced the triolet to the English language, where it enjoyed a brief popularity among late-nineteenth-century British poets. Though some employed the triolet as a vehicle for light or humorous themes, Thomas Hardy recognized the possibilities for melancholy and seriousness, if the repetition could be skillfully employed to mark a shift in the meaning of repeated lines.

In "How Great My Grief," Hardy displays both his mastery of the triolet and the potency of the form:

How great my grief, my joys how few, 
Since first it was my fate to know thee! 
- Have the slow years not brought to view 
How great my grief, my joys how few, 
Nor memory shaped old times anew, 
    Nor loving-kindness helped to show thee 
How great my grief, my joys how few, 
    Since first it was my fate to know thee?

The first line, "How great my grief, my joys how few," is, in its two subsequent appearances, modified by the movement of time in the poem. Initially, the line assumes a declarative position, indicating the subject and tone of the poem, one of grief and love lost. By its third iteration, after several queries to the person being addressed, the line takes on the added weight of the speaker’s astonished grief that the addressee has not, despite the years, recognized the speaker’s profound sense of loss.

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