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IV. Four Line Construction

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Explore the Craft of Writing Poetry
The Frame

Four Line Construction
A poetic unit of four lines is termed a quatrain or a tetrastich. Quatrain infers the unit is written adjacent to other stanzas but like the couplet, it can be a stand alone poem. The term tetrastich infers a stand alone poem of four lines but the term is rarely used.

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.
                         --Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Quatrain is a French word referring to a four-line stanzaic unit, arranged in any variation. In its multiple variations, it is the most prevalent unit of English Verse and probably of all the world. The Vedic forms, as well as Sanskrit, Chinese and Korean forms are predominantly written in 4 line units. If I were to include all of the four line stanzaic forms on this page I would probably have to list over half of the forms I found in my research. Therefore I included only a few of the more common and post the rest under the forums for their national or regional origin.

In English the quatrain is often written in iambic tetrameter but most often the meter of the quatrain is dependent on the verse form and poet's preference.

  • Alternating rhyme quatrain is a 4 line unit with alternating abab cdcd rhyme which changes from stanza to stanza. These are often found in sequence within an octave. (eg. an octave made up of 2 alternating rhymed quatrains would have a rhyme scheme of ababcdcd vs an an octave with alternating rhyme abababab)Line length and meter at the discretion of the poet.

    To a Waterfowl by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

    Whither, midst falling dew,
    While glow the heavens with the last steps of day
    Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
    Thy solitary way?

    Vainly the fowler's eye
    Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong
    As, darkly seen against the crimson sky,
    Thy figure floats along.

    Seek'st thou the plashy brink
    Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
    Or where the rocking billows rise and sing
    On the chafed ocean side?

    There is a Power whose care
    Teaches thy way along that pathless coast–
    The desert and illimitable air–
    Lone wandering, but not lost.

    All day thy wings have fanned,
    At that far height, the cold, thin atmosphere,
    Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land,
    Though the dark night is near.

    And soon that toil shall end;
    Soon shalt thou find a summer home, and rest,
    And scream among thy fellows; reeds shall bend,
    Soon, o'er thy sheltered nest.

    Thou'rt gone, the abyss of heaven
    Hath swallowed up thy form; yet, on my heart
    Deeply has sunk the lesson thou hast given,
    And shall not soon depart.

    He who, from zone to zone,
    Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
    In the long way that I must tread alone,
    Will lead my steps aright.

  • Envelope Quatrain is a rhymed 4 line unit, "the envelope" refers to the rhyme scheme abba. The bb is enveloped by the aa. An envelope can also be axxa with x being unrhymed. Line length and meter at the discrestion of the poet.

    Goodnight, Mac Adoo by Judi Van Gorder

    The noisy bird has tucked her head
    and mutely gone to sleep,
    she slowly switches feet
    upon her perch, her aviary bed.

  • Epigram quatrain from the Greek epigraphein, meaning "to write on, inscribe" that was originally inscriptions on stone. The epigram developed into a 4 line unit of narrative verse which is a brief clever often satirical saying. Rhyme and meter are optional. Two quatrains can be written for an epigram but it is rare to exceed that number.

    Oscar Wilde by Dorothy Parker (1893- 1967)

    If, with the literate, I am
    Impelled to try an epigram,
    I never seek to take the credit,
    We all assume that Oscar said it.

  • Epitaph quatrain epitaphion "a funeral oration" is a 4 line unit in narrative verse, originally to be inscribed on a tombstone. It should be a moving expression of grief, it can be light or even cynical. Rhyme and meter optional.

    Found at Epitaphs:Choosing Tombstones

    Beneath this simple stone
    That marks his resting place
    Our precious darling sleeps alone
    In the Lord's long embrace.

  • Heroic stanza is a quatrain made up of two heroic couplets. Lines written in iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme aabb.

    Dough by Tõnis Veenpere

    This is what she told me that we need:
    the winter foods, the wood for heating, seed.
    But I have something else in mind instead.
    I'll harvest stars, we'll bake them into bread.

  • In Memoriam Stanza
  • Dipodic Quatrain
  • Variant rhymed quatrain is a 4 line unit that carries random rhyme. Each quatrain has rhyme but without a set pattern such as aaxa, xaaa, axaa, or xaxa with x being unrhymed. Line length and meter at the discretion of the poet.


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