The literal translation of terza rima from Italian is 'third rhyme'. Terza rima is a three-line stanza using chain rhyme in the pattern A-B-A, B-C-B, C-D-C, D-E-D. There is no limit to the number of lines, but poems or sections of poems written in terza rima end with either a single line or couplet repeating the rhyme of the middle line of the final tercet. The two possible endings for the example above are d-e-d, e or d-e-d, e-e. There is no set rhythm for terza rima, but in English, iambic pentameter is generally preferred.
The first known use of terza rima is in Dante's Divina Commedia. In creating the form, Dante may have been influenced by the sirventes, a lyric form used by the Provençal troubadours. The three-line pattern may have been intended to suggest the Holy Trinity. Inspired by Dante, other Italian poets, including Petrarch and Boccaccio, began using the form.
The first English poet to write in terza rima was Geoffrey Chaucer, who used it for his Complaint to His Lady. Although a difficult form to use in English because of the relative paucity of rhyme words available in a language which has, in comparison with Italian, a more complex phonology, terza rima has been used by Wyatt, Milton, Byron (in his Prophecy of Dante) and Shelley (in his Ode to the West Wind and The Triumph of Life). Thomas Hardy also used the form of meter in 'Friends Beyond' to interlink the characters and continue the flow of the poem. A number of 20th-century poets also employed the form. These include W. H. Auden, Andrew Cannon, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Jennings, Philip Larkin, Archibald MacLeish, James Merrill, Jacqueline Osherow, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Clark Ashton Smith, Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur and William Carlos Williams. Edward Lowbury's adaptation of the form to six syllabled lines has been named piccola terza rima.
Not surprisingly, the form has also been used in translations of the Divina Commedia. Perhaps the most notable examples are Robert Pinsky's version of the Inferno, Laurence Binyon's version of the entire Divina Commedia, Dorothy L. Sayers's and the recent version by Peter Dale.
The opening lines of the Divina Commedia:
- 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 rinova 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)
- "Craftsmanship in Versification", in Wolfgang Görtschacher's Contemporary Views on the Little Magazine Scene, Poetry Salzburg, 2000, p.549