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Terza Rima Rhyme Scheme: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 What Is Terza Rima?
  • 1:30 Terza Rima in Dante's…
  • 3:27 Terza Rima in the…
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

Ever hear the saying 'Good things come in threes'? That's certainly true of terza rima, which draws its unique music from the power of three. In this lesson, we'll explore the ins and outs of this rhyme scheme, using examples from Dante and Shelley.

What Is Terza Rima?

In many cases, we can tell that a piece of writing is a poem just by hearing it read out loud. This is especially easy if a poem rhymes. Of course, not all poems rhyme in quite the same way. In formal verse, different rhyme schemes, or arrangements of rhyme within a poem, to choose from. One such rhyme scheme is terza rima.

Terza rima is a rhyme scheme that uses tercets, or three-line stanzas, and a pattern of interlocking end rhymes, rhymes that occur at the ends of lines. This interlocking pattern is often describing using the following letters: aba bcb cdc ded and so on. Each of the letters in this pattern represents one line of text. Lines represented by the same letter rhyme with one another. You can see that the pattern groups lines into sets of three. These are called tercets. As you can see, each tercet contains a rhyme from the one that comes before it. The second rhyme in one tercet becomes the first and third rhymes in the next tercet. This pattern can go on as long as the author wants, traditionally ending with a couplet or a single line that rhymes with the second line of the second-to-last stanza. So if the last tercet is ded, the last line would rhyme with ee and the poem would conclude ded e or ded ee if the poem ends with a couplet.

Terza Rima in Dante's Divine Comedy

To get a better understanding of how this unique rhyme scheme works, let's look at an example from terza rima's early history. The earliest appearance of terza rima was in the Divine Comedy, an important fourteenth century work by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. Here is an excerpt from the Divine Comedy, translated by the American poet Robert Pinsky:

As I drew nearer to the end of all desire,
I brought my longing's ardor to a final height,
Just as I ought. My vision, becoming pure,

Entered more and more the beam of that high light
That shines on its own truth. From then, my seeing
Became too large for speech, which fails at a sight

Beyond all boundaries, at memory's undoing--
As when the dreamer sees and after the dream
The passion endures, imprinted on his being

Though he can't recall the rest. I am the same:
Inside my heart, although my vision is almost
Entirely faded, droplets of its sweetness come

The way the sun dissolves the snow's crust--
The way, in the wind that stirred the light leaves,
The oracle that the Sibyl wrote was lost.

You can probably notice a few things about this poem right away. For starters, each stanza is a tercet. Notice that they all consist of three distinct lines. Now look at the rhyme scheme. Here we can see the terza rima scheme at work. In the second stanza, for example, the rhymes of the outside lines (light and sight) also rhyme with the middle line of the first stanza (height). You might have heard that few of the end rhymes in this example seem a bit off. This translation uses a technique called slant rhyme, where the rhyming words are similar without being exact rhymes of one another. It's also important to note that this example is taken from the middle of a canto, or section, in a larger work and so doesn't end with a single line or couplet.

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