terza rima: A verse form of interlocking three-line stanzas rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, etc. The terza rima form was invented by Dante Alighieri for the Commedia (The Divine Comedy, ca. 1304–1321), using the hendecasyllabic (eleven-syllable) line common to Italian poetry. In De vulgari eloquentia (“On eloquence in the vernacular,” 1304–1307?), Dante called rhyme concatenatio (“beautiful linkage”), and the triple rhymes beautifully link together the stanzas. Rhyming the first and third lines gives each tercet a sense of temporary closure; rhyming the second line with the first and last lines of the next stanza generates a strong feeling of propulsion. The effect of this chain-rhyme is both open-ended and conclusive, like moving through a series of interpenetrating rooms or going down a set of winding stairs: you are always traveling forward while looking back.
Geoffrey Chaucer introduced terza rima into English in the fourteenth century with his poem “A Complaint to His Lady.” Sir Thomas Wyatt’s three Satires (1536) are the first sustained use of terza rima in our language. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life” (1824) is the finest English poem ever written in the form. The first eight lines capture its spiraling motion:
Swift as a spirit hastening to his task
Of glory and of good, the Sun sprang forth
Rejoicing in his splendor, and the mask
Of darkness fell from the awakened Earth —
The smokeless altars of the mountain snows
Flamed above crimson clouds, and at the birth
Of light, the Ocean’s orison arose,
To which the birds tempered their matin lay.
Shelley also uses a terza rima sonnet for the five individual sections that comprise “Ode to the West Wind” (1819). The title poem of Randall Jarrell’s The Lost World (1965) is a virtuoso piece of terza rima in three parts, Marcel Proust in plain American. Robert Pinsky capably uses slant rhymes to create what he calls “a plausible terza rima in a readable English” in his translation of Dante’s Inferno (1994).
Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.