How to talk about…stanzas

Troilus and Criseyde is written in rhyme royal stanzas of seven lines rhyming ababbcc.  Despite the various subdivisions within the narrative (for example its proems, songs, letters, prayers, and apostrophes), Chaucer doesn’t vary the form of his stanzas as a French dit amoureux might for inset lyrics but keeps to this stanza throughout.  In later Middle English, the term balade referred not only to a fixed-form lyric but also to the stanza forms generally used within such lyrics.  To write in balade was to write stanzaically, most often in seven-line rhyme royal stanzas, though the term ‘rhyme royal’ was coined later during the sixteenth century.

Stanzas were used for  longer-length poems in Middle English in various different genres.  Stanzas with a set pattern of rhyme were used for dream-visions (such as the Gawain-poet’s Pearl or Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls) and, with set patterns of long and short lines, for tail-rhyme romances.  They were used for moral and didactic writing, such as the refrain poems found in the Vernon manuscript.  These stanzas usually had an even numbers of lines, though they often had rhymes which crossed over each other and interchanged (for example ababbcbc).  So Chaucer would have been well used to stanzaic verse in English in different genres.  He was also inspired by his Italian source material.  Giovanni Boccaccio used eight-line stanzas, called ottava rima, rhyming abababcc, for his version of the Troilus story, the Filostrato (upon which Chaucer based his own version), and for his Theban romance, the Teseida.

Chaucer, in responding to Boccaccio’s ottava rima, drops one line from eight to seven, creating an interestingly non-symmetrical stanza.  Dante, in his unfinished treatise on eloquence in vernacular, says that lines with an even number of syllables lack sophistication, because ‘they retain the nature of the numbers that govern them’.  By this, I think he might mean that they are too obviously symmetrical, they split too easily into into twos and fours with too much predictable or unavoidable repetition.  I think Chaucer likewise may have found the ottava rima’s abababcc too subdivisible and so decided upon a more asymmetrical arrangement.

Stanzas made of odd numbers of lines are not too symmetrical, never too obviously showing a predictable structure.  They can be divided up in various lopsided ways depending on where the syntactical breaks (i.e. the breaks between clauses or sentences) occur.  A rhyme royal stanza can be subdivided by its syntax into a quatrain rhyming abab plus a group of three lines rhyming bcc.  Or it can split by its syntax into a quintain rhyming ababb followed by a couplet cc.  Or a tercet aba followed by two couplets bb cc.  In its own right, rhyme is not ‘strong’ enough to register as a dividing point, so these divisions become apparent when they are reinforced by breaks in syntax.

The end of line five, where the third b rhyme occurs, is an interesting point.  Does this third rhyme on the same sound reinforce the third of three similar-sounding words or does it produce an unexpected third term, sounding the same but introducing a different idea?  Or are the ‘new ideas’ of the stanza only introduced in the cc couplet?  Again, this is not really something that happens just because of the repeating rhyme sound, but is something that can be triggered by the syntax and the meaning of the respective words in combination with the rhyme.

Next, a word of caution.  It’s relatively easy to chop a rhyme royal stanza into these parts – you could do it with any stanza in Troilus, and relate these subdivisions to the meaning or the momentum of the stanza (as long as your subdivisions were plausible in terms of syntactical breaks).  But because it could be done to any stanza, you have to work a bit harder to persuade us that this is really worth doing here, that it contributes something to the particularities of this particular extract.  If you are going to look at this relatively easy, always-available structure, you might need to have already shown that you can get to grips with more challenging things like word order or metre.

Nonetheless, Chaucer’s choice of form (and the process of adapting Boccaccio’s eight lines of Italian verse into seven lines of English poetry) does shape his meaning.  Most obviously, the fixed rhyme positions in each stanza shapes Chaucer’s word choice and word order.  Moreover, David Wallace, in his chapter on ‘Chaucer’s Italian Inheritance’ in the Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, points out that the final couplet (or perhaps even both couplets, bb in lines 4 and 5, and cc in 6 and 7) steadies the flow, stopping the potentially accelerating repeating alternation of abab.  The first part of the stanza may gain momentum, whilst the latter part may put on the brakes a little.  This might (or might not) mirror the acceleration and retardation of a thought, a speech, a dialogue or a description in any given stanza.

Barry Windeatt, in his section on rhyme in his Oxford Guides to Chaucer, shows that Chaucer often uses a single-line proverb, exclamation, oath or wish as the final line of a stanza, further emphasising the slowing-up of the final couplet.  Windeatt also describes beautifully how the stanza unit provides Chaucer with a ready-made frame which shapes the size of actions, descriptions, speeches etc, their beginnings and endings, the place where a breath or a pause might go.  Mark Lambert, in his contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, sums up the effect of this repeating size and structure: “the maker of stanzaic narrative is more conspicuously committed than is the couplet-writer […] to finding a certain shape of experience again and again.”

Lambert describes brilliantly the fun Chaucer has with the ending of a stanza: we think a speech has concluded at the full stop at the end of stanza, but after a breath (i.e. the interval between the stanzas), the speech starts up again.  As Lambert writes, “metrically, Troilus is a poem that keeps us saying to ourselves, ‘ah no; there is more’”.  Perhaps its basic unit captures and defines the essence of Troilus and Criseyde.  There is always more to say, things are always lopsided and never just right, life and love are always capable of being analysed in more than one way.

Further Reading

Barry Windeatt, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde (1992), pp. 354–58

David Wallace, ‘Chaucer’s Italian Inheritance’ and Mark Lambert, ‘Telling the Story in Troilus and Criseyde’, both in The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, ed. Piero Boitani and Jill Mann, 2nd edn (2003)

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