What Is a Quatrain?

A quatrain is a stanza, or a complete poem, in just four lines. The term also refers to a unit with a set rhyme scheme that occurs in certain formal poems, such as sonnets and villanelles. The quatrain is one of the oldest form of poetry, with origins in several cultures, including China and ancient Greece. The Iranian Rubai, popularized by Omar Khayyam, is one such form of early quatrain.

How Do You Identify a Quatrain in Writing?

The universal identifying factor is four lines. Beyond that, there are many types of quatrains in literature, including:

  • The ballad stanza, with an abab rhyme scheme and iambic tetrameter.
  • The Goethe stanza has an abab rhyme scheme but no set meter.
  • The Italian quatrain has an abba rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter.
  • The elegiac stanza uses abab rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter.

These are just some of the many forms a quatrain can take, as there is no set meter or rhyme scheme for this form. Indeed, a quatrain does not have to rhyme at all.

Examples of Quatrain

Quatrain Example 1. Emily Dickinson’s poem 239, like many of her poems, is composed of quatrains:

“Heaven”—is what I cannot reach!
The Apple on the Tree—
Provided it do hopeless—hang—
That—”He aven” is—to Me!”

Quatrain Example 2.  A quatrain from Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

Quatrain Example 3. This whole nursery rhyme is a quatrain:

“Georgie Porgie, puddin’ and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry.
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.”

Quatrain Example 4. This quatrain by Edward FitzGerald was inspired by the original Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

“Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring

Your Winter garment of Repentance fling:

The Bird of Time has but a little way

To flutter—and the Bird is on the Wing.”

Quatrain Example 5. This stanza is from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard”:

“The tolls curfew the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”


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