The Spenserian Stanza

Edmund Spenser devised the Spenserian stanza for his great work The Faerie Queene (1590). The stanza consists of eight lines of iambic pentameter followed by a single alexandrine, a twelve-syllable iambic line. The final line typically has a caesura, or break, after the first three feet. The rhyme scheme of these lines is "ababbcbcc." A perfect example of the form is--as one might expect--the first stanza of Book I of The Faerie Queene:

A gentle knight was pricking on the plaine,
Ycladd in mightie armes and silver shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe woundes did remaine,
The cruell markes of many a bloody fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he never wield:
His angry steede did chide his foaming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full jolly knight he seemed, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly jousts and fierce encounters fitt.

Critics note several earlier stanza forms as the basis for the Spenserian stanza . One widely cited source is the ottava rima. This is an Italian form that originated in thirteenth-century religious and minstrel poetry and consists of eight lines of iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme "abababcc." A relatively modern use of the ottava rima can be found in Byron's Don Juan. Another possible source for Spenser's stanza is the "rhyme royal," a stanza of seven lines of iambic pentameter that rhymes "ababbcc." Chaucer invented this in his "Complaint unto Pity" and Shakespeare later used it in The Rape of Lucrece. But regardless of its sources, the Spenserian stanza is regarded as "one of the most remarkably original metric innovations in the history of English verse" (Preminger 807).

The Spenserian stanza fell into a period of disuse in the seventeenth century, but it experienced a resurgence with Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes," and Shelley's "The Revolt of Islam" and "Adonais." Shelley is perhaps the greatest master of the Spenserian stanza after Spenser himself. His grasp of the form is quite notable in this, the third stanza from "Adonais":

Oh weep for Adonais-he is dead!
Wake, melancholy Mother, wake and weep!
Yet wherefore? Quench within their burning bed
Thy fiery tears, and let thy loud heart keep,
Like his, a mute and uncomplaining sleep;
For he is gone where all things wise and fair
Descend. Oh dream not that the amorous deep
Will yet restore him to the vital air;
Death feeds on his mute voice, and laughs at our despair .

Following this resurgence in the period of English Romanticism, the Spenserian stanza fell into disuse again in the mid-nineteenth century. A twentieth-century example of the Spenserian stanza is in the "Dieper Levensinkijk" by Dutch poet Willem Kloos; this is a rare example of the form written in a language other than English.

Works Cited

Evans, Ivor H., ed. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Preminger, Alex, ed. Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Shipley, Joseph T., ed. Dictionary of World Literary Terms. Boston: The Writer, 1970.

Shipley, Joseph T., ed. Dictionary of World Literature. New York: Philosophical Library, 1943.

[Robert Smith]