Terza rima

Terza rima (/ˌtɛərtsə ˈrmə/, also US: /ˌtɜːr-/,[1][2][3] Italian: [ˈtɛrtsa ˈriːma]) is a rhyming verse form, in which the poem, or each poem-section, consists of tercets (three line stanzas) with an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme: The last word of the second line in one tercet provides the rhyme for the first and third lines in the tercet that follows (aba bcb cdc). The poem or poem-section may have any number of lines, but it ends with either a single line or a couplet, which repeats the rhyme of the middle line of the previous tercet (yzy z or yzy zz).[4]

Terza rima was invented early in the fourteenth century by the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri for his narrative poem, the Divine Comedy, which he set in hendecasyllabic lines. In English, poets often use iambic pentameter. Terza rima is a challenging form for a poet, and it did not become common in the century following its invention. The form is especially challenging in languages that are inherently less rich in rhymes than Italian.[5]


The literal translation of terza rima from Italian is "third rhyme". The first kuse of terza rima is in Dante's Divine Comedy, completed in 1320. In creating the form, Dante may have been influenced by the sirventes, a lyric poetry form used by the Provençal troubadours. Inspired by Dante, other Italian poets, including Petrarch and Boccaccio, began using the form.[6]

The first English poet to write in terza rima was Geoffrey Chaucer, who used it for his "Complaint to His Lady". Terza rima has been used by Thomas Wyatt, John Milton, Lord Byron (in The Prophecy of Dante) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (in his "Ode to the West Wind" and The Triumph of Life). Thomas Hardy also used the form in "Friends Beyond" to interlink the characters and continue the flow of the poem.

Modern and contemporary poets that write or translate using terza rima are often interested in exploring modifications and variations of the rhyme.[7] A number of 20th-century poets employed the form; these include W. H. Auden ("The Sea and the Mirror"), Andrew Cannon, T. S. Eliot ("Little Gidding"), Robert Frost ("Acquainted with the Night"), Elizabeth Jennings, Philip Larkin, Archibald MacLeish ("The Conquistador"), James Merrill, Jacqueline Osherow, Sylvia Plath ("The Sow"), Adrienne Rich ("Terza Rima"), Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Clark Ashton Smith, Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur and William Carlos Williams ("The Yachts"). A 21st-century example of terza rima is David Ives' The Phobia Clinic, which the author describes as a "philosophical horror novelette in verse using Dante's Inferno as its model".[8] Edward Lowbury's adaptation of the form to six-syllable lines has been named piccola terza rima.[9]

English versions of the Divine Comedy are often set in iambic pentameter. Examples of English translations in the terza rima form include Robert Pinsky's version of the first book, Inferno, and Laurence Binyon's, Dorothy L. Sayers's and Peter Dale's versions of the entire work.


The opening lines of the Divine Comedy:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita A
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura B
ché la diritta via era smarrita. A
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura B
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte C
che nel pensier rinnova la paura! B
Tant'è amara che poco è più morte; C
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai, D
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte. C
Io non so ben ridir com'i' v'intrai, D
tant'era pien di sonno a quel punto E
che la verace via abbandonai. D

A section from Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" with a couplet ending:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being, A
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead B
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, A
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, B
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou, C
Who chariotest to their dark wintery bed B
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low, C
Each like a corpse within its grave, until D
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow C
Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill D
Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air) E
With living hues and odours plain and hill: D
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; E
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear! E


  1. ^ "Terza rima". Collins English Dictionary. HarperCollins. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
  2. ^ "terza rima" (US) and "terza rima". Oxford Dictionaries UK Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
  3. ^ "terza rima". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
  4. ^ Preminger, Alex, ed. Warnke, Frank J. ed. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press, 1993.ISBN 978-0691021232 p. 848
  5. ^ Preminger, Alex, ed. Warnke, Frank J. ed. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press, 1993.ISBN 978-0691021232 p. 848
  6. ^ Preminger, Alex, ed. Warnke, Frank J. ed. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press, 1993.ISBN 978-0691021232 p. 848
  7. ^ [1] Mills, Billy. "Poster poems: Terza rima". The Guardian. November 7, 2008.
  8. ^ Gans, Andrew. "David Ives Pens Philosophical Horror Novel, The Phobia Clinic". Playbill. April 24, 2010.
  9. ^ "Craftsmanship in Versification", in Wolfgang Görtschacher's Contemporary Views on the Little Magazine Scene, Poetry Salzburg, 2000, p. 549.

External linksEdit