Week 9: Complex Stanzas


This week turns to the complex stanza, which arises out of the Baroque stylings of the golden age of Spanish poetry. The complex stanza is one in which there is a fixed and repeated, but intricate and twisting, pattern of rhymes and rhythms which the poet themselves have invented for that particular poem. This is different from free verse, as the pattern is repeated in stanzas – but it is different from other fixed forms in that each poem has its own individual stanza shape and structure. We look this week at work by Sidney, Herrick, Herbert and Donne to see how different poets have used their own unique, twisting, intricate stanza creations for a range of different effects.



de Los siete Libras de Diana
del Libro primero Coplas de Sireno

Demerced tan estremada
ninguna deuda me queda,
pues en la misma moneda,
señora, quedåis pagada.
Que si gozé estando alli,
viendo delante de mi
rostro y Ojos soberanos,
vos también, viendo en mis manos
10 que en vuestro rostro vi.

Y esto no os parezca mal,
que si de vuestra hermosura
Vistes sola la figura
e yo vi 10 natural,
un pensamiento estremado,
jamås de amor subjectado,
mejor vee que no el cativo,
aunque el uno vea 10 vivo
y el otro lo dibuxado.

Jorge de Montemayor

from Diana

Sireno in Montemayor, holding his mistress’s glass before her, looking upon her while she viewed herself, thus sang:

Of this high grace. With bliss conjoined,
No further debt on me is laid,
Since that in self-same metal coined,
Sweet lady, you remain well paid.
For if my place give me great pleasure,
Having before me nature’s treasure,
In face and eyes unmatched being,
You have the same in my hands, seeing
What in your face mine eyes do measure.

Nor think the match unev’nly made,
That of those beams in you do tarry
The glass to you but gives a shade,
To me mine eyes the true shape carry;
For such a thought most highly prized
Which ever hath Love’s yoke despised,
Better than one captived perceiveth:
Though he the lively form receiveth
The other sees it but disguised.

translated by Sir Philip Sidney

We start with the origins of the complex stanza form in Spanish Golden Age writing. Jorge de Montemayor, a Portuguese poet who wrote almost exclusively in Spanish, shows in this poem from his pastoral prose romance the Diana (1559) the organization of the stanza in a complex musical form: ABBACCDDC. The shifting and turning of the rhymes is rather like a dance – a range of movements circling around and coming back. Note how in Sidney’s translation he keeps the general shape of this movement, but also switches the first four lines from an ABBA rhyme to an ABAB rhyme, to make the poem work in English. Even the translation, here, has its own complex stanza form.


The Sidney Psalter 

Sidney’s Psalter is perhaps the most famous example of the complex stanza. The Psalter was Sidney’s translation of the Psalms, which was carried on after his death by his sister Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembrokeshire (who was also George Herbert’s aunt). For each Psalm, the Sidneys came up with a unique, complex stanza form, which was not repeated again in the rest of the collection. This is the key thing to focus on with students – how the form itself is part of the invention of the poem rather than a container for the invention.

Psalm 53, Dixit insipiens

‘There is no god,’ the fool doth say,
If not in word, in thought and Will:
This fancy rotten deeds bewray,
And studies fixed on loathsome ill,
Not one doth good: from heav’nly hill
Jehovah’s eye one Wiser mind
Could not discern, that held the way
To understand and God to find.

‘They all have strayed, are cankered all:
Not one, I say, not one doth good.
But senselessness, what should I call
Such carriage of this cursèd brood?
My people are their bread, their food,
Upon my name they scorn to cry,
Whom vain affright doth yet appal,
Where no just ground of fear doth lie.’

But on their bones shall wreaked be
All thy invaders’ force and guile,
In vile confusion cast by thee,
For God himself shall make them vile.
Ah, Why delays that happy while
When Zion shall our saver bring?
The Lord his folk Will one day free:
Then Jacob’s house shall dance and sing.

Students here can try to map out the complex stanza form which Sidney has come up with for Psalm 53: ABABBCAC. The stanza shifts from a simple ABAB pattern half way through the octet, the repetition of the B rhyme acting as a mini-turn away from the previously set-up pattern, after which the stanza seems to fold back on itself (with the return to the A rhyme in the seventh line) while simultaneously moving forward (with the introduction of a new C rhyme). Ask students to examine how this structure is used in each particular stanza to create different rhetorical effects.


To Daffadills

Faire Daffadills, we weep to see
You haste away so soone;
As yet the early-rising Sun
Has not attain’d his Noone.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the Even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a Spring;
As quick a growth to meet Decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and drie
Like to the Summers rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.

The complex stanza is used by other poets for more songlike forms, as we see here in Herrick’s ‘To Daffadills’. Herrick here uses shifting rhymes (ABCBDDCEAE) and varying line lengths for a sweet, light musical poem. Note the long holds for some of the rhymes – for example, the rhyme from the first line is not picked up again until the penultimate line, eight lines later. Again we have a couplet in the middle, like in Sidney’s ‘Psalm 53’, but the rhymes laced around it are more varied, intricate and interwoven, creating a stanza that feels delicate and sweetly melodic.


The Collar

I struck the board, and cried, “No more;
I will abroad!
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free, free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it,
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted?
All wasted?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
Away! take heed;
I will abroad.
Call in thy death’s-head there; tie up thy fears;
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need
Deserves his load.”
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied My Lord.

Like Sidney with his Psalter, Herbert tried in his collection The Temple, from which this poem is taken, to come up with a unique stanza form for each poem, without repeating himself. These forms are often tied closely to the meaning of the poem, as we see here in ‘The Collar’, a poem about obedience in the face of potential chaos. Note how the title ‘Collar’ is a symbol of restraint, but also a homophone for ‘choler’ or anger. Both meanings are reflected in the structure of the poem. We seem to have quite a chaotic form for most of the poem, with four different line lengths, varying between two and five stresses, which are alternated freely between throughout the poem. The rhymes, meanwhile, are all over the place; again, like in Herrick, we often have to wait quite a while for the rhyme to appear (e.g. ‘pine’ and ‘wine’). Both the line lengths and the erratic rhyme scheme reflect themes of anger and chaos.

In the last four lines, however, the structure resolves itself. A hidden structure is revealed, with the neat ABAB rhyme and the paired long-short-long-short line lengths: as the poet accepts authority at the end, and pledges obedience to the Lord, so too does the poem gain a sense of calm and order. Students can see here how the form is the drama of the poem. The form mirrors how the believer struggles with his faith, feeling the temptation to give in to chaos, before finding calm and order in renewing his obedience to God. Whatever students might think of the poem’s argument, it is aesthetically striking how it makes that argument: at the same moment as the poet accepts the authority of the Lord, the language of the poem accepts the ‘authority’ of fixed form, resolving into a fixed rhyme scheme and cleanly patterned line lengths.


A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

In ‘A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day’, Donne also uses form to underline the emotional power of an idea. St. Lucy’s Day was traditionally celebrated on the shortest day of the year; like many midwinter festivals it is about light and the sun. It is still celebrated in parts of Scandinavia, where people wear crowns of candles.

Donne takes the shrinking of the light of the year as emblematic of his emotional state as he mourns the loss of his wife. The structure of the stanza captures this shrinking: the line lengths are mostly pentameter, but shrink to a tetrameter, and then a trimeter, within the heart of each stanza, before expanding again to pentameter for the rest of the stanza. The rhyme scheme dances around this pattern too: ABBA CCC DD.

Donne often used the scientific discoveries of the time to add new layers of meaning to his poems – here he uses language suggestive of the processes of distillation and concentration (‘new alchemy’, ‘quintessence’, the ‘limbec’ which is the distilling jar) to again mirror this movement that is found in the changing daylight and the contracting stanza. Students can see how the two metaphors, the shrinking daylight and the process of distillation, work together with the contracting form of the stanza to create the overall meaning of the poem.

The end point of this ‘shrinking’ movement is the idea of nothingness, which the poem arrives at, ending at midnight on the longest night. The whole poem tries to shrink everything down to the smallest possible thing, with the poet trying to make himself as close to nothing as possible – less than a shadow, even.

Nightfall, Tim Dooley

Throughout autumn, all through the graduated,
creeping grey of journeys past the railway bridge,
Lucille noted days on which
light kept its promises—great
block of pale or darker blue
offset by russets, lemons or maroons.
Businesses thrived or closed. Beggars sang tunes
or sold cheap lighters. She watched the sky for change
until it seemed she reached the end of change.

Darkening days lit up with festivals,
fireworks for Diwali or Guy Fawkes.
Week-ends meant shorter, damper walks,
or trips to newly opened malls
outside the city limits.
This week new Beaujolais. All the next,
displays of party dresses. Under lights,
in air-warmed atria, she felt as if on stage,
as if what haunted her was just a stage

to pass through like the others. Winter colds
hung on longer than before. Foggy air
left stains on the windscreen of her car.
All of it made her feel old
suddenly. Outside, an
ear-ringed, peak-capped boy played Nowhere Man,
his dog wrapped in a neat plaid blanket. And
Happy Christmas (War is Over) played again
in the lift to the parking floors. And again

small nations’ griefs plumped up the weekend press.
Each widow’s grief was different and the same.
Each mother’s horror measured as
a fractured smile, a face undressed.
Lucille put on her mask,
set out to face the early evening’s tasks,
thought again how much the year had asked
of her. At the street’s end stood the sky:
the overbearing, weighty, hardened sky.

The dashboard LCD read 16:12.
Tall orange streetlights started to come on.
Behind them, sulphurous yellow ran
its course beneath the groaning shelf
of cloud that thickened still.
Is this how dark it gets? The question Lucille
asked could penetrate the crystalline array
of solid surfaces, enter a space
an angstrom wide, or reach to distant space,

interrogating emptiness of galaxies,
asking non-decreasing event horizons
what light comes in or out. Reasons,
arguments—the stuff exegesis
explores—implode near
a black hole’s neither light nor darkened door;
and interstellar spaces no longer hoard
a crown of candles, or some freakish star.
Lucille looked at the clouded night which no star

burst through. Inside houses, coloured balls
cheered wrecked conifers, families found meaning
in games or company. Nothing
egregious disturbed decked halls.
Lucille dropped out of sight.
Without her, little changed. The sky grew lighter
a little longer as the year turned. White
petals broke the soil’s crust—the grave of all
kept its secrets… almost like nothing at all.

Here is an example for students of how these complex stanzas can be adapted for modern purposes. Tim Dooley’s poem, which was written in the early 90s against background of the war in Yugoslavia, imitates Donne’s stanza form, adapting its shrinking line-lengths to write about the shifts of wintertime in a modern city. The speaker, Lucille, plays on the Lucy from St Lucy’s Day. The same rhyme scheme is used (ABBACCCDD) but with a slight change in the final couplet, where Dooley rhymes the same word with itself to produce a duller, softer end to each stanza. He also brings in contemporary science, such as black holes and LCD screens, again taking inspiration from the Donne. Finishing here sets up students for the following tasks, showing them how these complex stanza forms, by being closely imitated, can be used to write about the contemporary world in a new light.



Students should create their own experimental stanza, exploring the combination of using different line lengths with an improvised rhyme scheme which is then repeated, to make it into a stanza form.


Students should take an existing complex stanza and mirror it, as Tim Dooley does in ‘Nightfall’.