Poetic Forms in English Literature

Updated on March 27, 2018

Physical Structures of The Poem:

Poetic Form can be understood as the physical structure of the poem: the length of lines, their rhythms, their system of rhymes and repetition. In this sense, it is normally reserved for the type of poem where these features have been shaped into a pattern, especially a familiar pattern.

This glossary includes full definitions of the most usual forms with examples :-

1. Sonnet:

It is a poem of 14 lines that is popular from Late Middle Ages on. By the 14th century and the Italian Renaissance, the form had further made well defined under the pen of Petrarch, whose sonnets were translated in the 16th century by Sir Thomas Wyatt, who is credited with introducing the sonnet form into English literature. A traditional Italian or Petrarchan sonnet follows the rhyme scheme abba, abba, cdecde. For instance: John Milton’s “On His Blindness”. The English or Shakespearean Sonnet follows the rhyme scheme abab, cdcd, efef, gg. For instance: William Shakespeare’s “Time and Love”.

2. Lyric:

It is a form of poetry, that is subject of being sung to the accompaniment of a musical instrument or that expresses intense personal emotions in a manner suggestive of a song. This type of poetry expresses the thoughts and feelings of the poet. For instance: Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee”.

3. Ode:

Ode” comes from the Greek aeidein, meaning to sing or chant, and belongs to the long and varied tradition of lyric poetry. Originally accompanied by music and dance, and later reserved by the Romantic poets to convey their strongest sentiments, it can be generalized as a formal address to an event, a person, or a thing not present. For instance: William Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood”.

4. Elegy:

An elegy, in poetic terms is a funeral song. It can be thought of as a melancholy poem, which is written to mourn the death of someone, who is personal and close to the heart. The first Elegies were written in Roman and Greek. For instance: Thomas Gray’s “An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”.

Country Churchyard
Country Churchyard

5. Idyll:

It is a short poem, descriptive of rustic life, written in the style of Theocritus’ short pastoral poem the “Idylls”. For instance: Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”.

6. Epic:

It is a long, often book-length, narrative in verse form that retells the heroic journey of a single person, or group of persons. For instance: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey”.

Illiad and Odyssey
Illiad and Odyssey

7. Ballad:

It is a form of verse, often a narrative, set to music. Etymologically, the word ballad has been taken from Latin word ballare, which means dancing song. F.B. Gum has explained the definition of ballad as, “a poem meant for singing, quite impersonal in material, probably connected in its origins with the communal dance but submitted to a process of oral traditions among people who are free from literary influences and fairly homogeneous in character.” For instance: John Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci”.

8. Acrostic:

It is a poem in which the first, last or other letters in a line spell out a particular word or phrase. The most common and simple form of this type of poem is, where the first letter of each line spell out the word or phrase. For instance: Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”.

9. Ballade:

It was one of the principal forms of music and poetry in 14th and 15th century in France. It contains three main stanzas, each with the same rhyme scheme, plus a shorter concluding stanza or envoi. All four stanzas have identical final refrain lines. The tone of the ballade was often solemn and formal, with elaborate symbolism and classical references. For instance: Andrew Lang’s “Ballade to an Optimist”.

10. Clerihew:

It is a whimsical, four line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley. The first line is the name of the poem’s subject, usually a famous person put in an absurd light. The rhyme scheme is AABB, and the rhymes are often forced. The line length and meter are irregular. For instance: W.H. Auden’s “Literary Graffiti”.

11. Eclogue:

It is a short pastoral poem, usually in dialogues. It first appeared in the idylls of the Greek poet Theocritus. For instance: Edmund Spenser’s “Shepheardes Calender: April” .

12. Epigram:

It is a very short poem, usually two or four lines long, with a simple rhyme scheme. The goal of an epigram is to encapulate a brief bit of wit or wisdom in poetic form. For instance: Alexander Pope’s Epigram

I am His Highness’ dog at Kew;

Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

13. Ghazal:

It is a poetic form, consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain, with each line sharing the same meter. It may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain or loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of the pain. The form is ancient originating in 6th-century Arabic verse. It is derived from the Arabian panegyric qasida. In style and content, it is a genre that has proved capable of an extraordinary variety of expression around its central themes of love and separation. It is one of the principal poetic forms which the Indo-Perso-Arabic civilization offered to the eastern Islamic world. For instance: Agha Shahid Ali’s “Even the Rain”.

Ghazal Presentation of Agha Ali Khan
Ghazal Presentation of Agha Ali Khan

14. Haiku:

It is a short poem which uses a clarifying language to convey the essence of an experience of nature probably linked to the human condition. This is written in English in Japanese haiku style. For instance : Jack Kerouac’s “Book of Haikus”.

15. Sanryu:

It is also a Japanese poetic form like Haiku. It is written about human nature usually in ironic vein. For instance: Don Haney’s “Back to School”.

16. Tanka:

It is also a Japanese poetic form. It is written in 5 lines. The theme of Tanka tends to lean towards personal feelings and the complexity of human interaction. For instance: Mamta Agarwal’s “An Island Within”.

17. Rubaiyat:

It is a Persian form of poetry. It contains stanzas of 4 lines each. It is very open as there is no defining length of lines in it.

Edward Fitzgerald used this form in his famous 1859 translation, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Because of this,this form is known as Rubaiyat Quatrain in English. For instance: Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”

18. Rondeau:

It is a poem of 15 lines. It is arranged in three stanzas of five lines(quintet), four lines(quatrain) and six lines(sestet) respectively.The first few words or phrase from the first line are repeated twice in the poem as a refrain. The rhyme scheme is aabba, aabA, aabbaA (Here A is the refrain). For instance: Thomas Wyatt’s “Request to Cupid for Revenge of His Unkind Love”.

19. Pantoum:

It is a poem of fixed form consisting four line stanzas with lines rhyming alternately. The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated to form first and third lines of the succeeding stanza and the first and third lines of first stanza form the second and forth lines of the last stanza but in reverse order. For instance: Blas Falconer’s “A Ride in the Rain”.

20. Lai:

It is a lyrical, narrative poem of 9 lines written in octo-syllabic couplets. It is dealt in the tales of adventure and romance. For instance: Walter Scott’s “The Lay of Poor Louise”.

21. Triolet:

It is a poem of 8 lines in which 1st, 4th, and 7th lines repeat, and 2nd and 8th lines also repeat. The rhyme scheme of the poem is AbaAabAB, capital letters representing the repeated lines. For instance: Thomas Hardy’s “Birds At Winter”.

22. Sestina:

It consists of six stanzas of six lines each followed by a three line envoi. The six ending words of first stanza are repeated as the ending words in other five stanzas in a set pattern.

First stanza : ..1 ..2 ..3 ..4 ..5 ..6

Second stanza: ..6 ..1 ..5 ..2 ..4 ..3

Third stanza : ..3 ..6 ..4 ..1 ..2 ..5

Fourth stanza: ..5 ..3 ..2 ..6 ..1 ..4

Fifth stanza : ..4 ..5 ..1 ..3 ..6 ..2

Sixth stanza: ..2 ..4 ..6 ..5 ..3 ..1

For instance: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” .

© 2018 Devendri Gore


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      Nitin Renu Agarwal 11 hours ago

      Useful Article

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      Dhruv mittal 3 weeks ago

      nice article

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      Enlightening & informative

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      Very useful

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      Karun Gaur 3 weeks ago from India

      Nice Article.