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What is a Chaucerian stanza?

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A Chaucerian stanza is a poetic construction introduced to English poetry by Geoffrey Chaucer. Composed of seven lines of iambic pentameter, this type of stanza has an A-B-A-B-B-C-C rhyme scheme. The Chaucerian stanza is also referred to as Rhyme Royale, probably because King James I of Scotland used this form in his poem "King’s Quair." Fitting for narrative, this construction is often found in poetry on topics concerning royalty or the upper class.

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Introduced by Geoffrey Chaucer, the Chaucerian stanza contains seven lines, each written in iambic pentameter. The stanza’s rhyme scheme is A-B-A-B-B-C-C (the tercet ABA and two couplets BB, CC). It is also known as a rhyme (rime) royale stanza because it was used by King James I of Scotland in his poem “King’s Quair.” This poetic form was popular during the Middle Ages.

Well-suited for narrative poetry, the Chaucerian stanza was often used by writers to comment on the actions of aristocracy or high society. For example, Chaucer’s epic poem Troilus and Criseyde opens with:

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thou help me for t’endyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte!

Chaucer begins this piece by declaring the importance of his topic: the ill-fated love story of Trojan prince and warrior Troilus and the Trojan woman Criseyde. Troilus experiences “double sorwe”—in warfare and in romance. “Tellen” in line one rhymes with “fellen” in line three, emphasizing the tragedy that Chaucer is about to relate. He portends that the “sone of Troye” (aka Troilus) in line two will fall “out of Ioye” (or joy) in line four. The second couplet self-consciously points to Chaucer’s task of recording this sad tale through written poetry (“t’endyte” and “wryte”).

Another famous example of extensive use of the Chaucerian stanza is Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me.” Composed of three Chaucerian stanzas, this poem narrates a male speaker’s supposed stalking by various women. In the second stanza, he describes an irresistible visitor:

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

Other well-known works constructed of Chaucerian stanzas include Chaucer’s “Parlement of Foules,” as well as the “The Man of Law’s Tale,” “The Clerk’s Tale,” “The Prioress’s Tale,” and “The Second Nun’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. Chaucerian stanzas also appear in the anonymous poem “The Flower and the Leaf,” Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece,” and even as recently as W. H. Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron” and W. B. Yeats’s “A Bronze Head.”

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