from The Fairie Queene

The Spenserian stanza is a verse form invented by Edmund Spenser for his epic poem, The Faerie Queene.

Form[edit | edit source]

A Spenserian stanza contains 9 lines in total: 8 lines in iambic pentameter (IP) followed by a single 'Alexandrine' line in iambic hexameter, with a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b-b-c-b-c-c.

The Spenserian can best be thought of as 2 cross-rhymed quatrains in IP, the opening line of the 2nd stanza also rhyming with the last line of the 1st, and concluding with an Alexandrine that rhymes with the last line of the 2nd.

Stanzas containing other numbers of lines, in iambic pentameter with a concluding Alexandrine, are often referred to as irregular Spenserians.

Example[edit | edit source]

This example is the 1st stanza from Spenser's Faerie Queene The formatting, wherein all lines but the first and last are indented, is the same as in printed editions of the Faerie Queene.

Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
   As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
   Am now enforst a far unfitter taske,
   For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
   And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
   Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,
   Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
   To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.

Other examples[edit | edit source]

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awakened from the dream of life;
'Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit's knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.
(Percy Bysshe Shelley, from "Adonais")


Look on this beautiful world and read the truth
In her fair page; see, every season brings
New change to her of everlasting youth;
Still the green soil with joyous living things
Swarms; the wide air is full of joyous wings;
And myriads still are happy in the sleep
Of Ocean's azure gulfs and where he flings
The restless surge. Eternal Love doth keep
In his complacent arms, the earth, the air, the deep.
(William Cullen Bryant, from "The Ages")


There is a twilight dawning on the world,
The herald of a full and perfect day,
When Liberty's wide flag shall be unfurl'd,
And kings shall bow to her superior sway:
Already she is on her august way,
And marching upward to her final goal;
Nations the warning of her voice obey,
Away the clouds of fear and error roll,
The chain is broke, that bound the thrall'd and fetter'd soul.
(James G. Percival, from "Carmen Seculare")

History[edit | edit source]

The origin of the stanza has been matter for disagreement among critics of prosody. Schiffer has argued that it was adapted from the old French ballade stanza. But it is much more probable that it was of Italian origin, and that Spencer was influenced by the Italian form ottava rima, which consists of 8 lines of iambic pentameter (or hendecasyllables) with the rhyme scheme a-b-a-b-a-b-c-c. Spenser, who was familiar with ottava rima as it had long been employed in Italy, and was at that very time being used by the school of Tasso, added a line between the Italian 4th and 5th, modified slightly the arrangements of rhyme, and added a foot to the last line, which became an Alexandrine. Another possible influence is rhyme royal, a traditional medieval form used by Geoffrey Chaucer and others, which has 7 lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme a-b-a-b-b-c-c. Most likely, however, is the 8-line ballad stanza with the rhyme scheme a-b-a-b-b-c-b-c, which Chaucer used in his "Monk's Tale." Spenser would have been familiar with this rhyme scheme and simply added a concluding line to the stanza."[1]

In spite of the very great beauty of this stanza and the popularity of Spenser, it was hardly used during the 17th century, although Giles and Phineas Fletcher made irregular adaptations of it, the former by omitting the 8th line, the latter by omitting the 6th and 8th.

In the middle of the 18th century the study of Spenser led poets to revive the stanza. The initiators of this revival were Mark Akenside, in The Virtuoso (1737); William Shenstone, in The Schoolmistress (1742); and James Thomson, in The Castle of Indolence (1748). Mary Tighe used it for her once-famous epic of Psyche.

It was a favourite form at the time of the romantic revival, when it was employed by Thomas Campbell, for his Gertrude of Wyoming (1809); by Keats, in "The Eve of St Agnes" (1820); by Shelley, in The Revolt of Islam (Laon and Cythna) (1818); by Felicia Dorothea Hemans; by Reginald Heber; but pre-eminently by Byron, in Childe Harold (1812-1817). Thomas Cooper, the Chartist, wrote his Purgatory of Suicides (1845) in Spenserian stanza, and Tennyson, part of his Lotus Eaters.

By later poets it has been neglected, but Worsley and Conington's translation of the Iliad (1865-1868) should be mentioned. The Spenserian stanza is an exclusively English form.

19th century[edit | edit source]

Spenser's verse form fell into disuse in the period immediately following his death. However, it was revived in the 1800's by several notable poets, including:

20th century[edit | edit source]

20th-century poets who have used the form include:

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  • Morton, Edward Payson. "The Spenserian Stanza before 1700". Modern Philology, Volume 4, No. 4, April 1907. pp. 639–654

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. A Spenser Handbook, by H.S.V. Jones. Published by Appleton-Century-Crofts, INC>, New York 1958. Page 142.

External links[edit | edit source]

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia. (view article). (view authors).
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.