Terza rima

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Terza rima - pronounced TERTser REEmer, IPA: /ˈtɛrt sa ˈriː ma/ - is a verse form consisting of a series of tercets (three-line stanzas) which employ chain rhyme, i.e., the second line of one three line stanza rhymes with the first and third lines of the next stanza, so that the rhymes exemplify the pattern a-b-a, b-c-b, c-d-c, d-e-d, and so on. A poem in terza rima ends with either one line or two lines which repeat the rhyme of the second line of the final stanza: in other words, the ending of the poem exemplifies the pattern d-e-d, e or d-e-d, e-e.

This verse form is of Italian origin - terza rima literally means 'third rhyme' in Italian - and it was first, and most famously, used in the Divina Commedia of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).

Here, as an example, are the opening lines of Canto III of the Commedia - they report the words which, according to Dante, are inscribed above the gate of Hell. Below that is an English translation of these lines by the poet Laurence Binyon (1869-1943). As you will see, Binyon's translation of the Commedia also uses terza rima.


Per me si va ne la città  dolente,
per me si va ne l'etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto Fattore:
fecemi la Divina Potestate,
la Somma Sapienza e'l Primo Amore.
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'intrate.


Through me the way is to the City of Woe:
Through me the way into the eternal pain;
Through me the way among the lost below.
Righteousness did my Maker on high constrain.
Me did divine Authority uprear;
Me supreme Wisdom and primal Love sustain.
Before I was, no things created were
Save the eternal, and I eternal abide.
Relinquish all hope, ye who enter here.


Note on metre: The normal metre for terza rimna in Italian has eleven syllables: five iambic feet of which the last has an extra unstressed syllable to allow a feminine rhyme. This matches the natural patterns of Italian: in English, there is less insistence on a feminine rhyme, and the lines are usually iambic pentameters, with a masculine rhyme.