What is a Stanza? Definition, Examples of Stanzas in Literature

Stanza definition: A stanza is a group of lines in poem that are separated physically using spaces between the different stanzas.

What is a Stanza in Literature?

A group of lines in a poem that are separated in a poem are referred to as stanzas. While stanzas may involve rhyme scheme, this is not a requirement. It is common, however, for stanzas in a poem to have some sort of rhythm or meter within the lines and to have the same number of lines in each stanza.

Example of Stanza

The first two stanzas in “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke contain the same number of lines (four) and both follow a rhyme scheme of abab:

“The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.”

Types of Stanzas

There are different types of stanzas people may encounter when examining poetry:

Couplet: consists of two consecutive lines of poetry that rhyme and have consistent meter.

Example of Couplet: The poem “A Poison Tree” by William Blake is written in couplets:

“I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.”

Tercet: consists of three lines that follow one of the two rhyming patterns, aaa or aba.

Example of Tercet: The poem “Of the Mean and Sure Estate” by Sir Tomas Wyatt employs the use of tercet using the aba rhyme scheme:

“My mother’s maids, when they did sew and spin,
They san sometime a song of the field mouse,
That, for because her livelood was but thin,

Would needs go seek her townish sister’s house.
She thought herself endured too much pain;
The stormy blasts her cave so sore did souse”

Quatrain: consists of four lines that often following one of the three rhyming patterns, aaaa, abab, or aabb.

Example of Quatrain: The first stanza in William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” is a quatrain with the rhyme scheme of abab:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

Quintain: consists of five lines that may or may not have a rhyming pattern.

Example of Quintain: The fourth stanza in Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” is written as a quintain that does not follow a rhyming pattern:

“It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?”

Sestet: these stanzas consist of six lines.

Example of Sestet: The poem “A Complaint” by William Wordsworth is comprised of three sestets:

“There is a change—and I am poor;
Your love hath been, nor long ago,
A fountain at my fond heart’s door,
Whose only business was to flow;
And flow it did; not taking heed
Of its own bounty, or my need.”

The Function of Stanza

Stanzas function in poetry much like paragraphs do in prose. They allow for the poet to include divisions in the poem to show shifts in subject or mood. This allows for a rhythm and flow to ensue as the audience reads the poem.

Summary: What are Stanzas?

Define stanza in literature: A stanza is a group of lines in a poem that is divided by spaces. At times, stanzas may follow a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but these are not requirements rather add to the rhythm of the piece.

Final Example:

Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” consists of six quatrains that follow the abab rhyme scheme. Here are the first two stanzas of this famous poem:

“ ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

            Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

            And the mome raths outgrabe.

‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

            The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

            The frumious Bandersnatch!’”