This stanza form is of Italian origin - ottava rima literally means 'eighth rhyme' in Italian - and was originally used for epic poetry, i.e., long narrative poems about the memorable actions of a heroic figure. It was used, for example, by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) in his long poems Filostrato and Teseide, by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) in his romantic epic Orlando furioso, and by Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) in his romantic epic Gerusalemme liberata.
In English ottava rima was used by Lord Byron (1788-1824) for his mock epic Don Juan. But its use has certainly not been confined to epic poetry: for example, two of the best-known poems of W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) - Sailing to Byzantium and Among School Children - use ottava rima. Here, as an example of the form, is the first stanza of Sailing to Byzantium:
- That is no country for old men. The young
- In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- - Those dying generations - at their song,
- The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
- Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
- Whatever is begotten, born, or dies.
- Caught in that sensual music all neglect
- Monuments of unageing intellect.