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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Blog #21: Stanza Form and Caesura

I am about to go over some things that most of the students participating in the poetry bee have already been exposed to, especially the Vice and Virtue students. So sit back and relax and know that I am not going to say anything earth-shattering.

    A stanza is the “paragraph” of a poem. Stanzas are made up of single lines called verses.  Stanza forms are named according to how many lines they contain.  Some common stanza names are tercets or triplets (3-line stanzas), quatrains (4-line stanzas), sestets (6-line stanzas), and octaves (8-line stanzas). One of the most common poems is one that uses couplets. A poem with rhymed couplets has a sustained end rhyme of aa bb cc, etc. Sometimes the couplets are divided into stanzas that are spaced; other times they are not. The Vice and Virtue class is just now going over John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “The Barefoot Boy,” which was also written in rhymed couplets. The Father of English poetry Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343–1400) used rhymed couplets in his poem Canterbury Tales. You will remember that Geoffrey Chaucer is the most commonly known poet of the Middle Ages, and his work Canterbury Tales is one of the most highly regarded poems in the English language. Chaucer, as you already learned, was the first poet to be buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. 

       A poet may choose to compose poems with long stanzas or short, long lines or short, in iambic meter or trochaic meter, etc., all according to the subject of his poem and audience. For example, the sonnet (a 14-line iambic pentameter poem) has been the form used by poets who want to write about love—love of a man for a woman (or woman for a man), love of a friend, or love of God. Poets have found the ballad stanza, on the other hand, particularly suited to tell a story.  The ballads of the past were sung, such as the famous ballads of Robin Hood. The ballad stanza consists of quatrains, or 4-line stanzas. The lines have a 4-foot, 3-foot, 4-foot, 3-foot meter. Because the ballad is especially suited for singing, many of the great hymns were written using this stanza form. Isaac Watts’ famous hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be,” and William Cowper’s “Walking With God” all were written in the ballad stanza form.  The rhyme scheme of the ballad stanza form varies, but often the last words of the second and fourth lines rhyme.


Let’s now go over the word caesura. It is pronounced sě-zhur’-ah, with the accent on the second syllable. The lines below, taken from an Isaac Watts’ poem “Cradle Song,” illustrate the use of the poetic term. 

Soft and easy || is thy cradle:

Coarse and hard || thy Saviour lay

    A caesura is a pause or break in a line of poetry, indicated in scansion by two vertical lines (||). A poet may use a pause in a line of poetry to show a contrast of ideas, as in this Isaac Watt’s poem. Note that there is a pause after the words “soft and easy” and a pause after the words “coarse and hard.” The pauses draw our attention to these pairs of words. By using the two caesuras, the poet shows a contrast between the “soft and easy” cradle of the first line and the “coarse and hard” manger in the second line. The poet is saying, “You, child, have a soft and easy cradle, but your Savior (Jesus) had nothing but a coarse, hard manger to lie in.”

    Caesura rhyme occurs when the word at the break in the line rhymes with the word at the end of the line, as in William Wordsworth’s poem “We Are Seven”:

“Their graves are green, || they may be seen,”

The little Maid replied,

“Twelve steps or more || from my mother’s door

And they are side by side.”

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