To celebrate new beginnings, I thought this week we’d look at one of the oldest forms in English, Rime Royal or Rhyme Royal.  Traditionally, the name Rhyme Royal is said to derive from The Kingis Quair (“The King’s Book), attributed to James I of Scotland (1394–1437), but some critics trace the name to the French chant royal.

Chaucer probably borrowed it from the French poet and musician Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300–77), who may have invented it or derived it from earlier French and Provençal poets. Rhyme Royal became the favorite form for long narrative poems during the 15th and early 16th centuries. Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece (1594) was the last important poem of the period in Rhyme Royal. Later, Milton experimented with the form, and it was successfully used by William Morris in the 19th century.

Chaucer first wrote  Troilus and Criseyde using the form and later in Parlement of Foules, and the Man of Law’s TaleThe Clerk’s Tale, and the Second Nun’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales. Having  adapted the form, he  found that it fit his descriptive, narrative and reflective needs very well in the “Tales”.

The rhyme royal stanza consists of seven lines, (usually) in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b-c-c. In practice, the stanza can be constructed either as a terza rima and two couplets (a-b-a, b-b, c-c) or a quatrain and a tercet (a-b-a-b, b-c-c).  This allows for a good deal of variety, especially when the form is used for longer narrative poems; and along with the couplet, it was the standard narrative meter in the late Middle Ages.

[Reminder:  iambic is a two syllable foot with the stress on the second syllable; pentameter is a line made of five of these type of feet.]

The form was continued by many other British poets. Edmund Spencer wrote Hymn of Heavenly Beauty in Rhyme Royal and adapted the form known as the Spenserian stanza from it. Rhyme Royal had gone out of favor during the Restoration (mid to late 1600s) but it began to be used again in the 19th century. Byron’s use of Ottava Rima probably derived from Rhyme Royal.  John Masefield employed its use in The Widow in the Bye Street and Dauber.  Other notable examples in the twentieth century are W. H. Auden’s Shield of Achilles and W. B. Yeats’  A Bronze Head.

Earliest known in English –
Chaucer’s – Troilus and Criseyde opening stanza

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye,
Thesiphone, thou help me for tendyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryt

Shakespeare’s last stanza from the Rape of Lucrece

When they had sworn to this advised doom
They did conclude to bear dead Lucrece thence;
To show her bleeding body thorough Rome,
And so to publish Tarquin’s foul offence:
Which being done with speedy diligence,
The Romans plausibly did give consent
To Tarquin’s everlasting banishment.

W. B. Yeats‘ – A Bronze Head

Here at right of the entrance this bronze head,
Human, superhuman, a bird’s round eye,
Everything else withered and mummy-dead.
What great tomb-haunter sweeps the distant sky
(Something may linger there though all else die;)
And finds there nothing to make its terror less
Hysterica passio* of its own emptiness?

No dark tomb-haunter once; her form all full
As though with magnanimity of light,
Yet a most gentle woman; who can tell
Which of her forms has shown her substance right?
Or maybe substance can be composite,
profound McTaggart thought so, and in a breath
A mouthful held the extreme of life and death.

But even at the starting-post, all sleek and new,
I saw the wildness in her and I thought
A vision of terror that it must live through
Had shattered her soul.  Propinquity had brought
Imagination to that pitch where it casts out
All that is not itself:  I had grown wild
And wandered murmuring everywhere, “My child, my
child! ”

Or else I thought her supernatural;
As though a sterner eye looked through her eye
On this foul world in its decline and fall;
On gangling stocks grown great, great stocks run dry,
Ancestral pearls all pitched into a sty,
Heroic reverie mocked by clown and knave,
And wondered what was left for massacre to save.

First published, March 1939, in /The New Republic/.

‘The Bronze Head,’ refers to a bronze painted plaster cast of Maud Gonne (once Yeats lover and Irish revolutionary) by Lawrence Campbell, which can be found in the Municipal Gallery of Moden Art in Dublin.

* a reference to its use in Shakespeare’s King Lear
Act II (iv, 56-57)

I invite you to write a stanza or more in this form if you like and link with us today. You don’t have to use epic themes. Make the form your own. After all, poets through the ages have felt free to change and adapt a form to fit his/her own voice.

(c) Gay Cannon * July 28, 2011