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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 Sir 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 Davies 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.
In United States Emma Lazarus wrote some short poems (inserted into the sequence Epochs) in rhyme royal.
Each example below is each from a different century. The first is from Chaucer who may have introduced the form into English. The second is from 15th century Scotland where the Scottish Chaucerians widely cultivated it. The third is from Thomas Wyatt who initiated the renaissance of English poetry.
- 14th century — Chaucer
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 (Troilus and Criseyde 1.1-7)
- 15th century — Henryson
(Describing 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. (Testament of Cresseid 155-161)
- 16th century — Wyatt
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. ("They Flee from Me" 1-7, modern spelling)
- 19th century — Emma Lazarus
It comes not in such wise as she had deemed,
Else might she still have clung to her despair.
More tender, grateful than she could have dreamed,
Fond hands passed pitying over brows and hair,
And gentle words borne softly through the air,
Calming her weary sense and wildered mind,
By welcome, dear communion with her kind. ("Sympathy" 1-7)
- The Art of Versification by Joseph Berg Esenwein, Mary Eleanor Roberts. Revised edition, Springfield 1921, pp 111-112.
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