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The rhyme royal stanza consists of seven lines, usually in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b-c-c. In practice, the stanza can be constructed either as a tercet and two couplets (a-b-a, b-b, c-c) or a quatrain and a tercet (a-b-a-b, b-c-c). This allows for variety, especially when the form is used for longer narrative poems. Along with the couplet, it was the standard narrative metre in the late Middle Ages.
Chaucer first used the rhyme royal stanza in his long poems Troilus and Criseyde and Parlement of Foules. He also used it for four of the Canterbury Tales: the Man of Law's Tale, the Prioress' Tale, the Clerk's Tale, and the Second Nun's Tale, and in a number of shorter lyrics. He may have adapted the form from a French ballade stanza or from the Italian Ottava rima, with the omission of the fifth line.
James I of Scotland used rhyme royal for his Chaucerian poem The Kingis Quair, and it is believed that the name of the stanza derives from this royal use. English and Scottish poets were greatly influenced by Chaucer in the century after his death and most made use of the form in at least some of their works. John Lydgate used the stanza for many of his occasional and love poems. The Scottish poet Robert Henryson consistently used the stanza throughout his two longest works, the Morall Fabillis and Testament of Cresseid, while the anonymous The Flower and the Leaf is another early use of the form. In the 16th century Thomas Wyatt used it in his poem They flee from me that sometime did me seek, Thomas Sackville in the Induction to The Mirror for Magistrates, Alexander Barclay in his Ship of Fools and Stephen Hawes in his Pastime of Pleasure.
The seven-line stanza began to go out of fashion during the Elizabethan era but it was still used by John Davys in Orchestra and by William Shakespeare in The Rape of Lucrece. Edmund Spenser wrote his Hymn of Heavenly Beauty using rhyme royal but he also derived his own Spenserian stanza with the rhyme scheme a-b-a-b-b-c-b-c-c partly by adapting rhyme royal. Like many stanzaic forms, rhyme royal fell out of fashion during the Restoration, and has never been widely used since. However, William Wordsworth employed rhyme royal (slightly modified by an alexandrine in the seventh line) in "Resolution and Independence", and notable twentieth-century poems in the stanza are W. H. Auden's Letter to Lord Byron (as well as some of the stanzas in The Shield of Achilles) and W. B. Yeats's A Bronze Head.
The three examples below are each from a different century. The first, composed in the 14th century, is from Chaucer and if, as some scholars believe, it is one of his earliest poems, then it is possibly the first manifestation of the form in English. The second example is from 15th century Scotland where the stanza was very widely taken up and developed. The last, from Thomas Wyatt, is a 16th-century illustration of the form (modernised).
- Opening stanza of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde:
- The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
- That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
- In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
- Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
- My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye,
- Thesiphone, thou help me for tendyte
- Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryt
- Example from Henryson's Testament of Cresseid, in a stanza which describes the god Saturn hailing from an extremely cold realm:
- His face fronsit, his lyre was lyke the leid,
- His teith chatterit and cheverit with the chin,
- His ene drowpit, how sonkin in his heid,
- Out of his nois the meldrop fast can rin,
- With lippis bla and cheikis leine and thin;
- The ice-schoklis that fra his hair doun hang
- Was wonder greit and as ane speir als lang.
- Opening to Thomas Wyatt's rhyme royal poem:
- They flee from me that sometime did me seek
- With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
- I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
- That now are wild and do not remember
- That sometime they put themself in danger
- To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
- Busily seeking with a continual change.
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