two, four, six, eight, a stanza to appreciate…

The popularity of seven-line rhyme royal stanzas in late medieval and early Tudor verse means that it’s easy to overlook eight-line stanzas, especially those rhyming ababbcbc.  This verse form doesn’t really have a name in Middle English, though eight-line stanzas are sometimes called ballades (meaning a discrete stanza unit such as that used in the French fixed-form lyric, in contrast to verse in couplets or long lines), a word that is also used for stanzas of seven or nine lines.  Fifteenth-century French arts of poetry call this rhyme-scheme ‘double croisée’, meaning that the rhymes cross over each other twice.

Writing numbers, from BL MS Harley 4350

Modern scholars sometimes call these stanzas octaves or octets (corresponding to huitain in French), all terms which indicate that these are stanzas of eight lines.  But these terms don’t signal the particular rhyme scheme, and indeed Sir Philip Sidney (who is the first to use the term octave as far as I can tell) uses it to refer to stanzas rhyming ababaabb and ababccdd.  Yet, even though it doesn’t have a name, the ababbcbc form of the eight-line stanza is a form with a certain identity in Middle English literature.

Chaucer uses this ababbcbc form in his Monk’s Tale, as well as in his Marian lyric, the ABC, and hence it is often called a ‘Monk’s Tale stanza’.  It may be that Chaucer arrived at this stanza form as an adaptation of the Italian ottava rima stanza (rhyming abababcc) used by Boccaccio for his Teseida and Filostrato.  Catherine Addison discusses the form in an excellent article on ‘The Effects of the Stanza on Poetic Narrative’.  She describes it as ‘a rather unsatisfactory stanza, being anticlimactic because everything seems leading up to and away from the middle couplet […] Though a stanza such as this may serve an unsettling, bathetic function, which is perhaps its purpose in the abortive anecdotes of the Monk’s Tale, it is not in itself especially memorable or pleasing, for it arouses expectations without entirely satisfying them.’

Though this form is dysfunctional in one way, in another it is entirely usable and even authoritative.  As well as the possible Italian source for this stanza, there is also a native tradition, established by the later fourteenth century, of writing political and religious verse in English in eight-line stanzas of four-stress lines rhyming ababbcbC (the capital C here indicating that each stanza ends with the same refrain line).  These lyrics have been called pseudo-ballades as if they were imitations of the French ballade stanza, though (as Geert De Wilde has shown) they are more likely derived from earlier Anglo-Norman and Middle English stanzaic verse-forms.  The refrain makes this verse-form satisfactory, in Addison’s terms.  Although the couplet is indeed in the middle of the stanza, the following first c-rhyme is not a new sound but a reminder of the already-heard refrain to come.  The familiar refrain in the final line ties each stanza into the poem as a whole.  With the refrain this rhyme pattern has a coherence which the non-refrain versions lack.

This eight-line form, with or without a refrain, is used very often for verse in praise of the Virgin Mary.  It’s hard to know whether Chaucer started this fashion, by his choice of this form for the ABC,  or whether he was using a form which he and his audience would have recognised as a form often used for religious lyric.  This then raises the question of why, after all the Monk’s pretentious talk of tragedies written variously in Latin hexameters and prose and metre, does Chaucer give his speaker this stanza?   In its reworking of ottava rima, it may reflect the Italian origins of this genre of de casibus, the falls of great figures of history.  But it may also be that the Monk, for all his pretensions, defaults (in Chaucer’s manipulating hands) to a familiar vernacular form for moral verse.

Once Chaucer’s works had popularised both the seven- and eight-line stanzas, fifteenth-century poets had the choice of these two recognisable forms.  Hoccleve chooses this eight-line stanza for his 1405 Male Regle: in doing so Hoccleve ‘signals his engagement with moral verse’ as Vincent Gillespie notes.  Henry Scogan follows suit in his Moral Balade which was perhaps intended for the four sons of Henry IV.  John Walton chooses this eight-line stanza for the first three books of his 1410 verse translation of Boethius’s De consolatione (a translation commissioned by Elizabeth, Countess of Warwick) before swapping to rhyme royal for the final two books.

Fifteenth-century poets also exploited the possibilities of switching from one stanza form to another, even though it risked confusing the scribes who copied their poems.  Lydgate, for example, swaps from sevens to eights for the Magnificat in his Life of our LadySebastian Sobecki has analysed Lydgate’s combination of rhyme royal and eight-line stanzas in his Testament.  Lydgate uses rhyme royal for the narratives of the Fall of Princes but very often switches to eight-lined stanzas for his through-rhymed envoys.   Richard Roos uses eight-line stanzas for the main text of his translation of Alain Chartier’s La Belle Dame sans Mercy (followinghis source, which itself uses this double croisée form) and rhyme royal for his prologue and epilogue: here the switch in form distinguishes the translator’s voice from that which he translates.  Benedict Burgh translates the body of the Dicta Catonis into rhyme royal, but uses eight-line stanzas for his lenvoys addressing his young reader, William Bourchier, son of Henry, first earl of Essex.  Osbern Bokenham in his mixed-form Legends of Holy Women often (though not always) uses eight-line stanzas for his prologues in contrast to rhyme royal for narrative.

From these switches, it seems that the eight-line stanza offered poets a voice more fitting for directly addressing readers (especially superiors) with deference.  It offered a voice with moral and Marian authority, and also the authority of the lyric rather than narrative.  The use of this stanza-form in verse drama also shows that this form was recognisable and that it had meaning, especially when in a hierarchical relationship to other verse forms.  Mercy’s monologues in Mankind are in this eight-line stanza, in contrast to the eight-line tail-rhyme (aaabcccb) of the vices.  One eight-line form indicates virtue, the other vice.  The morality play Wisdom exploits a similar contrast.  All of the characters, Wisdom, Anima, Mind, Will and Understanding, speak in eight-line ababbcbc at the beginning of the play, before the three Faculties are corrupted by the tail-rhyming Lucifer.  They fall into temptation and into tail-rhyme, and it is only the reappearance of Wisdom which saves Anima and restores virtue in the form of ababbcbc stanzas once more.

The particular identity of this form was recognised in the vernacular arts of poetry in the second half of the sixteenth century.  King James VI, in his treatise on Scottish poetry (1584), advises his readers that ‘For any heich and graue subiectis, specially drawin out of learnit authouris, vse this kynde of verse following, callit Ballat Royal’.  George Puttenham’s Art of English Poesy (1588) calls rhyme royal fitting for ‘historical or grave’ subjects, but says that eight-line stanzas are ‘very stately and heroic…which I like better than that of seven because it receiveth better band’ (i.e. that it has more lines in the stanza bound together by rhyme and not easily divisible from each other), though he doesn’t specify a rhyme-scheme.  Puttenham’s recent editors, Frank Whigham and Wayne A Rebhorn, say that this reference may be to the ottava rima used in Italian epic and romance, but this is not really well ‘bound’, as it divides easily into six and two.  So it may be that Puttenham is thinking of the ababbcbc form here.

Even though it doesn’t have a usefully distinct and collectively agreed-upon name, the ababbcbc stanza does have identity and meaning (though poetic identities are never hard and fast, so there are plenty of exceptions to these rules).  It is a stanza-form in which to be direct, to speak to superiors, to be serious, orthodox, dignified, moral, Marian.  I just wish we could give it a name!

What do you call this stanza and why?  What should we call it?  Does it have other identities that you know of?  Let me know!

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