A page from the "Poetry through the Ages" exhibit...

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Two touchstones.

Hundreds of ancient and antiquated forms of poetry live today, but many others failed to survive centuries of pestilence, wars, scourges, conquerors, and repressions that laid cultural treasures to waste. Of the forms that survived, chain verse stands as one of the most obscure, for the simple reason that very few examples exist. Virtually every poetry anthology compiled during the past two centuries describes the form, then cites but two examples: an anonymous French poem translated in 1773, and John Byrom’s Untitled.

John Byrom
John Byrom wrote one of the two examples cited for chain verse.
Middle Ages
Chain verse emerged during the Middle Ages, most likely within old France’s poetic tradition.

Vehicle of disguise.

Scholars agree that chain verse emerged during the Middle Ages, most likely within old France’s fertile Provencal poetic tradition. The poets of Provence were equally adroit spoken-word presenters and writers, with much of their spoken-word performed in troubadour fashion as they traveled from town to town to deliver news, music, and poetry. Often, they disguised the news within poetic verse to allay suspicions of the ever-present Crusaders. Perhaps chain verse, with its catchy repetition between the end of one line and beginning of another, served to hold listeners’ attention. It certainly provided entertainment.

Forms of repetition.

Given chain verse’s structure and wordplay, it’s perplexing that the form didn’t become more popular. Two known forms emerged: one repeats the last word or last syllable of a line with the first word or syllable of the next line, and the other repeats the last line of each stanza with the first line of the following stanza.

Influenced many poetry forms
The repetition inherent in chain verse indirectly influenced many other forms of poetry.

Widespread influence.

Chain verse enjoys a more colorful history as an influence on well-known poetic forms, adding to its mystery as a tap root of sorts. Chain verse indirectly influenced the development of triolet, rondeau, and villanelle, all of which repeat lines within stanzas, and contain rime riche, or identical rhyme, in which accented vowels and the consonants preceding them sound identical. Beginning in the 13th century, all four of these forms were well-practiced by Italian, German, French, English, and American poets. In addition, all have enjoyed revivals among groups of poets in the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly college students and New Formalist poets.