Thursday, July 9, 2009

Terza Rima

All hope abandon if you hope to scale the peak
That Dante mastered in his own medieval time—
Unless you are prepared by effort now to seek

To learn that poet’s subtle, perfect tercet rhyme,
The early steps of which demand that you retain
The subtle a-b-a’s by means of which you climb

Your personal high Paradiso by refrain,
Your second verse, same as the first, but now the scheme
Becomes a b-c-b and so on once again

Until a thousand verses hence you’ve filled a ream
With lines, narration, pristine images galore
Neglecting not a sublime, lofty, noble theme

In which chaste caritas ranks high above amor
In which you hold converse with saintly Beatrice
Although in Hell you may have chatted with a whore.

There is but one thing more, a bit of artifice:
Your last two lines should stand alone to mark the end
And rhyme the one with next the way that couples kiss.

The last rhyme takes its sound, as you must apprehend
From the middle line above, on which it must depend.

To which I need merely add my admiration for Dorothy Sayers who did The Divine Comedy using this lofty, chained rhyme scheme, much harder to achieve in English than Italiano. And, by way of a P.S., I must note that this little instruction in how to do the terza rima is written in hexameter whereas, the authorities on high strongly recommend iambic pentameter instead, bowing to such greats as Frost, Shelley, Chaucer—and, indeed, Dante himself, although that sovereign of poetry grandly shorted five or spilled from five to six and often up to seven whenever the spirit so happened to move him.

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