ABCs of Poetry: Q is for Quatrain

Posted by on May 27, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: Q is for Quatrain

When you’re a poet and are given the option to write something using the letter “Q,” the first thing that springs to mind is QUATRAIN. Well, it did for me, anyway. So what IS it, you ask? The shortest answer is that a quatrain (from the French word for four: “quatre”) is a four-line stanza of poetry. It can be a stand-alone poem of only four lines, or can be a four-line stanza within a longer poem.

As a dramatic device, a quatrain not only aids in the memorization of a poem, it also helps give structure, form and rhythm to it. The quatrain organizes the poem, much like paragraphs in an essay help organize a page. By creating some white space, the words become less overwhelming and more accessible to the reader.  Additionally, the stanzas as well as the rhyme scheme and meter help propel the reader audibly forward through the poem, navigating to its conclusion. 

In formal poetry, the rhyme scheme and meter help define the specific type of quatrain. Historically different types of quatrains have been used for specific purposes and are found in literary traditions from cultures around the world. There are many different variations, but according to Literary Devices some include:

  • Ballad Stanza – rhyme scheme is ABAB with iambic tetrameter

  • Envelope Stanza – rhyme scheme is ABBA with iambic tetrameter

  • Goethe Stanza – rhyme scheme is ABAB but no meter

  • Italian Quatrain – rhyme scheme is ABBA with iambic pentameter  

  • Hymnal Quatrain – rhyme scheme is A4 B3 C4 B3; multi-stanza contains three alternating rhymes with iambic trimester and iambic tetrameter

  • Decasyllabic Quatrain – rhyme scheme is AABB or ABAB; if written in iambic pentameter, qualifies as Heroic or Elegiac Stanza  

  • Memoriam Stanza – rhyme scheme is ABBA with iambic tetrameter

Let’s take a brief but close look at the Heroic Stanza or Elegiac Stanza. An elegiac poem is one that is sad, somber and generally about death, and traditionally follows this format through the stages of loss: lamentation, praise/admiration, consolation.  A famous example is “Elegy Written in Country Courtyard” by Thomas Gray:

“The tolls curfew the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The plowman plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

Another example is William Wordsworth’s “Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont.” Not only is this an elegy, it is also an ekphrastic poem as well. Written in iambic pentameter, each individual stanza has an “ABAB” rhyme scheme, and proceeds through the stages of loss, seeking solace and consolation.

“Farewell, farewell the heart that lives alone,
Housed in a dream, at distance from the Kind!
Such happiness, wherever it be known,
Is to be pitied; for ’tis surely blind.

But welcome fortitude, and patient cheer,
And frequent sights of what is to be borne!
Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.—
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.”

As a literary device, quatrains have a long history; the cultural variations are worth exploring further.  For a deeper dive into quatrains, especially those from world literature, check out these more extensive descriptions and type examples.

Heidi St. Jean received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing/Poetry from Fairfield University, where she was selected as the recipient of its 2013 Academic Achievement Award for the M.F.A. program. She was poetry editor of Theodate, an online ekphrastic poetry journal. She also previously worked as managing editor for the literary journal Drunken Boat, and was one of two poetry editors for Mason’s Road. Her poetry and essays have published in Spry; Rock & Sling; Afterimage: Inklight; The Lyon Review; The Barefoot Review; Long River Run; Mason’s Road and Theodate, among others. Her ekphrastic poem, “The Lawrence Tree,” was selected as Third Prize winner in the 2013 Al Savard Memorial Poetry Contest, sponsored by the Connecticut Poetry Society. (The judge was Russell Strauss, past president of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies.) Her poem, “Surrealistic Dream of the Synesthete,” won Honorable Mention in the Maine Media Workshop and College contest, displaying in Maine Media Gallery’s “Dreams” exhibit during Spring 2014. Her media criticism/op-ed piece, “Dickinson Film More Fiction Than Fact” was written after a private screening of “A Quiet Passion,” the Terence Davies’ film, and was published in June 2016 in the Hampshire Gazette. In 2017, thirty of her poems appeared in the June issue of Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Project, and her ekphrastic poem “Bobolink Song, En Plein Air” displayed as part of “ekphrasis v” with the exhibition “Michael Gallagher — Sketching the Landscape: A Plein Air Journal” in the Bellarmine Hall Galleries/Fairfield Museum of Art. In 2019, her poem “Igneous Dreams” appeared in the “Ekphrasis III” exhibit in Fairfield, CT. She is currently seeking publication for her latest manuscript. She works professionally as a creative strategist, writer and editor.