Quatrains: Characteristics & Overview

Instructor: Richard Davis

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

The quatrain is one of the most common stanzas in English poetry, but it's far from ordinary. In this lesson, you'll learn about three unique varieties of quatrain by reading examples from Thomas Gray, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Emily Dickinson.


Imagine yourself opening a novel to a random page. It's not likely that the page will be completely covered with words from top to bottom. Instead, the text on the page is divided into paragraphs. Paragraphs keep the reader from getting lost on the page and feeling overwhelmed by a large amount of text. Even though poems tend to take up less space on a page, poetry can also be divided into pieces that improve the reader's experience.

These pieces are called stanzas. A stanza is a group of lines that serves as a division or a 'unit' in a poem (just as a paragraph is a 'unit' in prose). One of the most popular stanzas in English literature is the quatrain. A quatrain is simply a stanza made of four lines. However, in formal poetry, meter (the pattern of strong and weak syllables) and rhyme scheme (where the rhymes appear in a poem) are used to define several different types of quatrain.

The Elegiac Stanza

The first type of quatrain we'll examine is the elegiac stanza. An elegiac stanza is a quatrain that uses an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter. The term 'iambic pentameter' means that each line is made of five iambs. An iamb is a weak syllable followed by a strong syllable (as in 'above').

Let's look at an example of this kind of stanza, as used by Thomas Gray in his 1751 poem 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.' To make it easier to see how the elegiac stanza works, I've inserted letters to show the rhyme scheme and I've put the strong syllables in italics.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, (a)
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea, (b)
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, (a)
And leaves the world to darkness and to me. (b)

Interestingly enough, this kind of stanza wasn't always called 'elegiac.' Before Gray's poem, the elegiac stanza was referred to as the 'heroic stanza' because the quatrain's rhyme and meter were similar to those of the heroic couplet (two lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme). However, after Gray published 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,' this kind of quatrain became associated with poems called elegies. An elegy is a serious, sad poem (generally about death).

The In Memoriam Stanza

The next variety of quatrain we'll discuss is called the In Memoriam stanza. An In Memoriam stanza uses an a-b-b-a rhyme scheme and iambic tetrameter. Iambic tetrameter is a kind of meter that uses four iambs on each line (unlike iambic pentameter, which uses five). Much like the elegiac stanza, the In Memoriam stanza's name is related to a specific poem. Here's a stanza from that poem: Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous elegy In Memoriam A.H.H.

So word by word, and line by line, (a)
The dead man touch'd me from the past, (b)
And all at once it seem'd at last (b)
The living soul was flash'd on mine . . . (a)

In Memoriam A.H.H., which took Tennyson 17 years to complete, was published in 1850. The poem is made of 133 'cantos' (sections) that describe the stages of the grief Tennyson experienced after the death of a close friend named Arthur Henry Hallum. Every stanza of every canto of In Memoriam A.H.H. uses the same rhyme scheme and meter. This impressive accomplishment has been immortalized with the term 'In Memoriam stanza.'

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