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Tercet in Poetry: Definition & Examples

Tercet in Poetry: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:02 Definition of a Tercet
  • 0:21 Types of Tercets
  • 2:04 Examples of Tercets:…
  • 3:15 Examples of Tercets:…
  • 4:07 Examples of Tercets:…
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Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In this lesson, we'll discover what a tercet is and look at different types. Tercets can be enjoyable to read, but understanding exactly how they are written allows us to really appreciate their different forms.

Definition of a Tercet

A tercet is a three-lined stanza or poem that often contains a rhyme. There are many different types of tercets. They can be easily read, and when they rhyme they have a certain type of flow, like rolling waves. But, creating that three-line rhythmic flow can be quite a challenge.

Types of Tercets

One type of tercet that does not typically rhyme is a haiku. This is a Japanese three-line poem usually about nature that often follows the syllable count of five-seven-five, meaning the first line has five syllables, the second line has seven, and the third line has five again.

A triplet is another type of tercet, but it has the rhyme scheme AAA, so that all three lines in the stanza rhyme with each other.

An enclosed tercet must have the rhyme scheme ABA. In other words, the first and third lines that rhyme with each other enclose the middle line that doesn't rhyme.

A Sicilian tercet also has the ABA rhyme scheme, but this fancier tercet has the added challenge of being in iambic pentameter. This means each of the three lines must be ten syllables long with an accented or emphasized syllable on every second beat. Shakespeare was a master when it came to using iambic pentameter:

Shall I comPARE thee TO a SUMmer's DAY?

Perhaps the most challenging form of tercet is the terza rima. It has tercets that usually use iambic pentameter, but the rhyme scheme is: ABA BCB CDC and so on. This intricate rhyme scheme ties the stanzas together because the second line of each tercet starts the rhyme for the next tercet. Then the poem ends with a dramatic finish: one line standing alone that rhymes with the second line of the previous stanza, making the final rhyme scheme: XYX YZY Z.

Examples of Tercets

Haiku

Here's an example of a well-known haiku, which can also be characterized as a tercet. It is by Basho (1644-1694).

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

Notice that it is made up of just three lines that do not rhyme. It focuses on a scene in nature. The first line has five syllables, the second line has seven, and the third line has five.

Triplet

In Robert Browning's poem 'A Toccata of Galuppi's,' triplets are used as the speaker listens to a piece of music by Venetian composer Baldassare Galuppi. The song reminds him of Venice, and he imagines quite a scene. It is described in detail while maintaining the AAA rhyme scheme. Here's the poem's first triplet:

Oh, Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;
But although I give you credit, 'tis with such a heavy mind!

Enclosed or Sicilian?

Let's look at the next tercet to see if you can tell whether it is an enclosed tercet or a Sicilian tercet:

Beneath the snow and frozen light of day
Await the seeds of budding hope to rise
And yet those hints of green lead us astray

This three-line stanza has ten syllables in each line and uses iambic pentameter. It also follows the rhyme scheme ABA. So, it is a Sicilian tercet.

Let's try again:

White furry paw upon my skin
Soft plea for love
A little scratch, a purring grin

This three-line stanza about a cat has the same ABA rhyme scheme, but it isn't written in iambic pentameter and varies in how many syllables are in each line. It is an example of a simple enclosed tercet.

Terza Rima

Percy Shelley's poem 'Ode to the West Wind' is a famous example of terza rima. Let's look at an excerpt, and notice how cleverly he uses rhyming tercets that follow the strict rhyme scheme of: ABA, BCB, and so on.

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