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In this lesson, we’ll discover what a tercet is and look at different types. Tercets can be enjoyable to read, but understanding exactly how they are written allows us to really appreciate their different forms.

Definition of a Tercet

A tercet is a three-lined stanza or poem that often contains a rhyme. There are many different types of tercets. They can be easily read, and when they rhyme they have a certain type of flow, like rolling waves.

But, creating that three-line rhythmic flow can be quite a challenge.

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Types of Tercets

One type of tercet that does not typically rhyme is a haiku. This is a Japanese three-line poem usually about nature that often follows the syllable count of five-seven-five, meaning the first line has five syllables, the second line has seven, and the third line has five again.A triplet is another type of tercet, but it has the rhyme scheme AAA, so that all three lines in the stanza rhyme with each other.An enclosed tercet must have the rhyme scheme ABA.

In other words, the first and third lines that rhyme with each other enclose the middle line that doesn’t rhyme.A Sicilian tercet also has the ABA rhyme scheme, but this fancier tercet has the added challenge of being in iambic pentameter. This means each of the three lines must be ten syllables long with an accented or emphasized syllable on every second beat.

Shakespeare was a master when it came to using iambic pentameter:Shall I comPARE thee TO a SUMmer’s DAY?Perhaps the most challenging form of tercet is the terza rima. It has tercets that usually use iambic pentameter, but the rhyme scheme is: ABA BCB CDC and so on. This intricate rhyme scheme ties the stanzas together because the second line of each tercet starts the rhyme for the next tercet. Then the poem ends with a dramatic finish: one line standing alone that rhymes with the second line of the previous stanza, making the final rhyme scheme: XYX YZY Z.

Examples of Tercets

Haiku

Here’s an example of a well-known haiku, which can also be characterized as a tercet. It is by Basho (1644-1694).

An old silent pond…A frog jumps into the pond,splash! Silence again.Notice that it is made up of just three lines that do not rhyme. It focuses on a scene in nature. The first line has five syllables, the second line has seven, and the third line has five.

Triplet

In Robert Browning’s poem ‘A Toccata of Galuppi’s,’ triplets are used as the speaker listens to a piece of music by Venetian composer Baldassare Galuppi. The song reminds him of Venice, and he imagines quite a scene. It is described in detail while maintaining the AAA rhyme scheme. Here’s the poem’s first triplet:Oh, Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;But although I give you credit, ’tis with such a heavy mind!

Enclosed or Sicilian?

Let’s look at the next tercet to see if you can tell whether it is an enclosed tercet or a Sicilian tercet:Beneath the snow and frozen light of dayAwait the seeds of budding hope to riseAnd yet those hints of green lead us astrayThis three-line stanza has ten syllables in each line and uses iambic pentameter.

It also follows the rhyme scheme ABA. So, it is a Sicilian tercet.Let’s try again:White furry paw upon my skinSoft plea for loveA little scratch, a purring grinThis three-line stanza about a cat has the same ABA rhyme scheme, but it isn’t written in iambic pentameter and varies in how many syllables are in each line. It is an example of a simple enclosed tercet.

Terza Rima

Percy Shelley’s poem ‘Ode to the West Wind’ is a famous example of terza rima. Let’s look at an excerpt, and notice how cleverly he uses rhyming tercets that follow the strict rhyme scheme of: ABA, BCB, and so on.O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves deadAre driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,Who chariotest to their dark wintery bed Lines one and three rhyme, being and fleeing, and then line two rhymes with lines four and six in the second stanza: dead, red, and bed.

If we were to continue reading Shelley’s poem, we would know that the third tercet will start with a line that rhymes with line five to continue the rhyme scheme required in a terza rima.

Lesson Summary

Although tercets come in many forms, we know that they always have three lines, and most of them rhyme (with the exception of the haiku). There are more simplistic rhyming tercets like the triplet, which follows the AAA rhyme scheme. Then the enclosed tercet gets a little bit more complicated by having two rhyming lines enclosed around a middle line that doesn’t rhyme, ABA.

Even trickier is the Sicilian tercet, which is the fancier form of an enclosed tercet because it adds the challenge of being written in iambic pentameter. But, the most complex of all is the terza rima, which is also written in iambic pentameter but has multiple tercets that follow the strict rhyme scheme of ABA, BCB, CDC, etc. and then ends with one line standing by itself that rhymes with the middle line from the previous tercet,YZY Z.

Try to think of tercets as different types of ocean waves. The bigger the wave, the more complex it is, with its rhyme scheme and maybe the addition of iambic pentameter. But, those challenging waves still fold on top of each other, creating a powerful rhythm felt by all.

Tercets Definition ; Types

tercethaiku
Tercet a three-lined stanza or poem that often contains a rhyme
Haiku a Japanese three-line poem usually about nature that often follows the syllable count of five-seven-five
Triplet has the rhyme scheme AAA; all three lines in the stanza rhyme with each other
Enclosed tercet must have the rhyme scheme ABA, the first and third lines that rhyme
Sicilian tercet has the ABA rhyme scheme, but this fancier tercet is in iambic pentameter
Iambic pentameter ten-syllables long with an accented or emphasized syllable on every second beat

Learning Outcomes

If you’d like to find out how much you learned, pursue these goals when you finish the lesson on tercets:

  • Write the meaning of a tercet
  • List the various types of tercets
  • Give examples of these types

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