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Terza Rima Rhyme Scheme: Definition & Examples

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

Definition: 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, there are many different arrangements of rhymes, or rhyme schemes, to choose from. One such rhyme scheme is terza rima.

Terza rima is a rhyme scheme that uses tercets (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. As you can see, each tercet contains a rhyme from the one that comes before it. To be more specific, 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 (for example, ded ee or ded e).

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 Italian poet Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy in the fourteenth century. The following example is an excerpt from contemporary American poet Robert Pinsky's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy:

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

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

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

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

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

If you listen carefully, you'll hear that few of the rhymes in this example seem a bit off, but the sounds of the words are still fairly similar. This is called slant rhyme. You may also have noticed that the example doesn't end with a couplet or a single line. This is because this example is taken from the middle of a canto (or section) in a larger work.

Terza Rima in the Romantic Period

Now let's look at one of the most well-known uses of terza rima in English literature. The following example is from Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ode to the West Wind. Shelley was a member of the Romantic movement in English literature, which placed a great deal of emphasis on emotion and the natural world. Ode to the West Wind is a beautiful example of Romantic poetry because it deals with the author's emotional state and addresses a force of nature. Here is the final canto of the poem:

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