Quatrain (in Persian: Rubaa-e or Robaii) is one of the most popular forms of poetry, and according to some scholars it is one of the oldest one. In this article, the definitions, origin, various forms, and significances of quatrain are studied and discussed.
DEFINITIONS: Quatrain simply defines as a group of four lines in a poem. According to etymologists, the word is from Old French (from quatre, which means four), and from Latin quattuor. In the Art of Poetry, a quatrain is a poem or a stanza within a poem that consists of four lines, in which the lines 2 and 4 must rhyme. Lines 1 and 3 may or may not rhyme.
Quatrain usually follows an abab, abba, abcb, aabb, or aaba rhyme scheme. The quatrains composed by famous Iranian poet, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), follow mostly the aaba rhyme scheme. Khayyam’s quatrains are also known as Rubaa-ey-Yaat.
ORIGIN: According to the late Professor Edward Granville Browne (1862-1926), a British Orientalist and a scholar on Persian Literature, quatrain was one of the Poetic Forms that firstly originated in Iran. He wrote, “There can be no doubt that Sassanid courts were filled with music and with poems and songs and that the trend was, at the least, reflected in post-Sassanid era. No matter how drastically the change to a metric system may have affected the syllabic poetry of ancient Iran, at least superficially, the quatrain and the ode are Iranian in origin. Although Persian Poetry reached its highest point in the 10th century in Khorasaan, there are evidences that indicate it existed at the Sassanid courts”.
VARIOUS FORMS: There are at least 7 different forms of quatrains:
1. Introverted Quatrain, which is a quatrain having an enclosed rhyme. This form of quatrain may also be called as an envelope. An example of an introverted quatrain is the In Memoriam Stanza, named for the poem by Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), which has an abba rhyme scheme:
O thou, new-year, delaying long,
Delayest the sorrow in my blood,
That longs to burst a frozen bud
And flood a fresher throat with song
2. Short Meter, which is also called as Short Measure. It is a quatrain of which the first, second, and fourth lines are in iambic tri-meter and the third is in iambic tetra-meter. (An iamb is a metrical foot used in various types of poetry. Originally the term referred to one of the feet of the quantitative meter of classical Greek prosody: a short syllable followed by a long syllable). Various Christian ritual songs, hymns, employ the form of Short Meter among other forms of poetry such as the common meter, long meter, and so on:
He speaks, and, listening to his voice,
New life the dead receive,
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice,
The humble poor believe.
3. Rubaa-ey (also spelled as Roba'i): appears mostly in Persian Literature, and it is a quatrain with a rhyme scheme of aaba. Here is an example of a Rubaa-ey composed by famous Iranian poet Omar Khayyam as translated in English by Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883):
With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with mine own hand wrought to make it grow;
And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd-
“I came like Water, and like Wind I go”.
4. Heroic Stanza: It is a rhymed quatrain in heroic verse with rhyme scheme abab. The form was also used by British poets William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Thomas Gray (1716-1771) among many others. Here is an example of Heroic Stanza from the "Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard" composed by Thomas Gray:
The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
5. Pantoum: It is a Malaysian poetic form which first appeared in France, in the nineteenth century. Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) made the form fashionable. It then appeared in the UK and later in the USA. The Pantoum consists of a series of quatrains rhyming abab in each quatrain. Traditionally, the final line of the Pantoum must be the same as its first line, and the lines may be of any length.
The Pantoum has a rhyme scheme of abab in each quatrain. Usually a Pantoum says everything twice. A good example of the Pantoum is possibly “Parent's Pantoum” composed by the contemporary American poetess Carolyn Kizer, and the first two stanzas of which are excerpted here:
Where did these enormous children come from,
More ladylike than we have ever been?
Some of ours look older than we feel.
How did they appear in their long dresses?
More ladylike than we have ever been?
But they moan about their aging more than we do,
In their fragile heels and long black dresses.
They say they admire our youthful spontaneity.
6. Venus and Adonis Stanza: It is a stanza consisting of an iambic pentameter quatrain and couplet with the rhyme scheme ababcc. The stanza was so called because it was used by William Shakespeare in his poem Venus and Adonis (1593):
Even as the sunne with purple-colourd face,
Had tane his last leaue of the weeping morne,
Rose-cheekt Adonis hied him to the chace,
Hunting he lou'd, but loue he laught to scorne,
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amaine vnto him,
And like a bold fac'd suter ginnes to woo him.
7. Kyrielle: It is a French verse form in short, usually octo-syllabic, rhyming couplets. The couplets are often paired in quatrains and are characterized by a refrain that is sometimes a single word and sometimes the full second line of the couplet or the full fourth line of the quatrain. An interesting example of the Kyrielle is probably “All things must end, as all began” composed by British poet John Payne (1842-1916), and the first three stanzas of which are excerpted here:
A lark in the mesh of the tangled vine,
A bee that drowns in the flower-cup's wine,
A fly in sunshine,--such is the man.
All things must end, as all began.
A little pain, a little pleasure,
A little heaping up of treasure;
Then no more gazing upon the sun.
All things must end that have begun.
Where is the time for hope or doubt?
A puff of the wind and life is out;
A turn of the wheel and rest is won.
All things must end that have begun.
1. As noted by this author in a previous communiqué: “It is presumed that the art of poetry, using the human body as its medium, evolved for specific uses; to hold things in memory, both within and beyond the individual life span; to achieve intensity and sensuous appeal; and to express feelings and ideas rapidly and memorably”. Among many poetic forms, quatrain can be easily memorized due to the fact that it is composed only by four lines.
2. One reason why poetry in general and the quatrains in particular can be so important is that it is so intimately concerned with feelings. Most quatrains try, and they often capture exactly the shade of emotion that feel just right to the reader.
3. It is documented that the early storyteller often relied on stock phrases, fixed rhythms, or rhyme and many of the oldest narratives in the world, such as the famous Babylonian tale of the Epic of Gilgamesh are in verse. Quatrain is also like a short story by which a poet can easily express himself.
4. Many Iranian poets such as Molawi, Khayyam, Hafez, Pur Sina (Avicenna), Ba Ba Taher Oryan, and Shaater Abbas Saboohi are famous for the composition of their beautiful quatrains. In recent years, the patriotic quatrains composed by contemporary Iranian poets like Mohammad Jalaali Chimeh, Ismail Khoii, Vida Farhoodi, and others have attracted the attentions of many Iranian patriots at home and around the world.
5. Some romantic and patriotic quatrains composed by this author may also be viewed online here: 1, 2, 3, & 4
Manouchehr Saadat Noury, PhD
Bain, C. E., Beaty, J., and Hunter, J. P. (1986): The Norton Introduction to Literature, ed., ISBN 0-393-95441-2.
Britannica Encyclopedia (2006): Online Article on “Short Story, History & Origin”.
E.G. Browne, E. G. (1998): Literary History of Persia, ed., ISBN 0-700-70406-X.
Saadat Noury, M. (2006): Online Article on “Poetic Form of Quatrain”.
Saadat Noury, M. (2011): Online Article on “First Iranian Master of Colloquial Poetry”.
Unst, A. (2005): Online Article on “Pantoum”.
Various Sources (2006): Online Articles on “Quatrain”.
Wikipedia Encyclopedia (2011): Online Article on “Poetry”.
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