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

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Dante’s influence.

Over the past eight centuries in Europe, and before that in Persia and the Orient, the tercet has been applied to a wide variety of poems. The tercet was obscure, even among poets, until Dante Alighieri interlinked tercets to form terza rima in The Divine Comedy. From there, the tercet’s musicality and usefulness grew in popularity. Since terza rima launched the tercet into European poetic discourse, the work of Sir Thomas Wyatt (better known as the first to employ the Italian sonnet form in English poetry) provides an English-language example in "Second Satire."

From Second Satire
Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42)

My mother’s maids, when they did sew and spin,

They sang sometimes a song of the field mouse,
That for because their livelihood was but so thin

Would needs go seek her townish sister’s house.

She thought herself endured to much pain:
The stormy blasts her cave so sore did souse...
A later 16th century poet, Nicholas Breton, demonstrated the tercet’s flexibility as a triplet, as well as the beautiful musicality of the form:
Country Song
Nicholas Breton (1545-1626)

Shall we go dance the hay, the hay?

Never pipe could ever play
Better shepherd’s roundelay.

Shall we go sing the song, the song?

Never Love did ever wrong,
Fair maids, hold hands all along.

Shall we go learn to woo, to woo?

Never thought ever came to,
Better deed could better do.

Shall we go learn to kiss, to kiss?

Never heart could ever miss
Comfort, where true meaning is.

Thus at base they run, they run.

When the sport was scarce begun.
But I waked–and all was done.

The Romantic poets.

Among the English Romantic poets, Alfred Lord Tennyson often worked with tercets, as shown by these two examples:

The Eagle
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92)

He clasps the crag with crooked hands:

Close to the sun it lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, it stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
From Two Voices
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92)

A still small voice spake unto me:

'Thou art so full of misery,
Were it not better not to be?’

Then to the still small voice I said:

'Let me not cast in endless shade
What is so wonderfully made.’

Tercets for pacing.

More recently, tercets have appeared in varying rhyme schemes, or no rhyme schemes at all – an effect of free verse’s preference for natural language rhythms. However, many fine free verse and blank verse poets, as well as modern formalists, have found the three-line stanza structure ideal for pacing their poems. Two sterling examples of recently published tercet poems are Pulitzer Prize nominee Harvey Stanbrough’s "Reduced Circumstances" and Susan Mitchell’s "Dragonfly." Note the formalism of Stanbrough’s poem and the stop-and-go flight of Mitchell’s piece, which masterfully mimics the mannerisms of a dragonfly. Both illustrate the versatility of tercets.

Reduced Circumstances
Harvey Stanbrough (1954– )

He wasn’t always stretched that way, you know

strained through that fine sieve and powdered out
into polite society, a mote

in someone else’s eye. The guy trained hard,

compressed himself into the various molds
others thought he’d fit. Nobody bothered

to show they cared–to try to add three days

back into his week or put July
back into his year–they just smiled,

used him for their purposes, the last

of which was as the subject of some brief
but witty poem, and nobody knew

or wished to know the worst, most violent

effect: His circumstances were reduced
until he merely sat with folded hands.
Susan Mitchell (1944-)

caught on the wing the wing is a

disarray of sun spots

the air black dots on sheer on trans-

parency on wheel and whee
openness so

surprising it rivals invincibility what

is magic to do pull itself
out of a hat

saw itself in two what a to-do

grabs hold of my finger
extended will

not to be shaken free together we are one

stem one spire one shoot upshot
bent at a right

angle to itself so this is what it feels

to be reed a stem with wings
for leaves a

finger that can see how the wind blows what

whir ungloves my breath what whist
what wings two

sets can up can down can blow fast

forward faster re-
verse how is

language to keep up how outwing

those wings their gulps
and gobbles of

ricochet at every bump is this

what the world is this romp
this dizziness a fast

roll of the dice four dots and three hundreds

bounced into life the same
morning bumbling

babies they stub their fantastic

engines on air on me not
at all brainy

like a bow tied like a fancy gift done

up with organza like a spree
a paint-the-town dotty

such extravagance such waste too soon

they stump to a standstill in
puddles on hedges

tossed aside still brand new still shiny

the windup toy that will not wind a
mood run down

should i take back my delight delaminate

what wing was joy but oh my king-
dom for the tip of a branch