Spenserian stanza

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The Spenserian stanza is a verse form invented by the poet Edmund Spenser (?1552-1599), and used by him at length in his epic romance The Faerie Queene. Each stanza consists of 9 lines, and a very disciplined rhyme scheme, which is nevertheless capable of surprising flexibility and variation.

The first eight lines are iambic pentameters, and the last is an alexandrine, or iambic hexameter. These rhyme in what may be seen as two quatrains, of which the last is completed by a couplet: a b a b b c b c c, with a first quatrain a b a b, linked to a second quatrain b c b c by the couplet b b, and finishing neatly with a second couplet c c. Here are two examples, the first from The Faerie Queene (Bk I, Canto IX, stanzas XXXIX and XL), and the second the opening stanza of John Keats' poem The Eve of St Agnes (1819):


Who trauels by the wearie wandring way,
To come vnto his wished home in haste,
And meetes a flood, that doth his passage stay,
Is not great grace to helpe him ouer past,
Or free his feet, that in the myre sticke fast?
Most enuious man, that grieues at neighbours good,
And fond, that ioyest in the woe thou hast,
Why wilt not let him passe, that long hath stood
Vpon the banke, yet wilt thy selfe not passe the flood?

He there does now enioy eternall rest
And happie ease, which thou doest want and craue,
And further from it daily wanderest:
What if some litle paine the passage haue,
That makes fraile flesh to feare the bitter waue?
Is not short paine well borne, that brings long ease,
And layes the soule to sleepe in quiet graue?
Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please.


St Agnes Eve! Ah, bitter chill it was
The owl for all his feathers was a-cold;
The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass
And silent was the flock in woolly fold.
Numb were the Beadsman's fingers as he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem'd taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin's picture, while his prayer he saith.

Other poets have used the Spenserian stanza, such as Robert Burns, in his poem The Cotter's Saturday Night (1786), and notably during the Romantic period. Apart from Keats (quoted above), these include Lord Byron, in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818), Percy Bysshe Shelley in The Revolt of Islam (1818) and Adonais (1821) and Sir Walter Scott in The Vision of Don Roderick (1811).

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