Forms of Poetry

Discover the difference between a Sonnet, a Ballad, and a Haiku

In Media Res
Heroic events to everyday occurrences
14 lines
Before the final couplet
John Keats
19 lines with five tercets and a quatrain
Structured word repetition
President Abraham Lincoln
Three lines with 5, 7, and 5 syllables

Epic Form

Epic is an ancient genre of poetry, typically a lengthy narrative with grand themes, significant events or actions that have a profound impact on their society or humanity – for example founding a city, or achieving victory in war.


Common features of epic include:

Invocation of a Muse: Epics often begin with an invocation, or a request for divine inspiration and guidance from a Muse or deity.

“In Media Res”: Beginning in the middle of the action (a convention known in Latin as “in medias res”), with the backstory revealed gradually through flashbacks or dialogue.

Epic hero: The protagonist of an epic poem is typically a larger-than-life hero of extraordinary abilities or divine lineage, who embodies the values and ideals of the society from which the poem originates.

Vast setting: Epics typically span a broad geographical scope, and may also include supernatural realms, such as the underworld or the realm of the gods.

Divine intervention: Gods and supernatural beings often intervene to aid or hinder the protagonist and other characters.

Epic Similes

In addition to those previously listed, Homeric epics, as well as works influenced by Homer, such as Virgil’s *Aeneid,* Dante’s *Divine Comedy,* and John Milton’s *Paradise Lost,* make use of a distinctive poetic device known as an “epic simile”.

Epic similes are detailed, elaborate comparisons that extend over several lines in an epic poem. They often compare heroic or extraordinary events, actions, or characters to more familiar, everyday occurrences, helping the reader to better understand and visualize larger-than-life elements.


For example, Book 2 of the *Iliad* compares the army to a swarm of flies:

*Like flies swarming around shepherds’ pens in spring,
when pails fill up with milk, so the Achaeans,
a huge long-haired host, marched out onto that plain
against the Trojans, eager to destroy them.*

Ballad Form


A ballad is a type of narrative poem or song that tells a story, often involving romance, adventure, or tragedy. They are typically composed of quatrains (four-line stanzas), usually with a rhyme scheme ABAB or ABCB, and with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.

Take for example, this stanza from the folk ballad “Barbara Allen”:

*In Scarlet town, where I was born,* [A]
*There was a fair maid dwellin’* [B]
*Made every youth cry, “Well-a-way!”* [C]
*Her name was Barbara Allen.* [B]

In this quatrain, you can see alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (lines 1 and 3), which are composed of four metrical feet, and iambic trimeter (lines 2 and 4), with only three.

Ballads also frequently feature refrains: a repeated line or group of lines that appears at regular intervals, usually after each stanza or verse, similar to a chorus. These often contain a memorable phrase or key idea that encapsulates the theme or message of the ballad.


A sonnet is a form of poem consisting of 14 lines, typically written in iambic pentameter (each line with five pairs of syllables, with the first syllable unstressed and the second stressed). Sonnets often treat themes of love.

This form of poem was invented in italy and popularized by the italian poet Petrarch. His style of sonnet is divided into an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the last six lines). The octave usually follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA, while the sestet can vary, often having a rhyme scheme of CDECDE or CDCDCD.


Another feature of a Petrarchan sonnet is known as a “volta” (meaning “turn” in Italian) which occurs following the octave, between the 8th and 9th lines.

The “volta” marks a shift or change in thought, perspective, or argument within the sonnet, redirecting the emotional or logical progression of the poem or offering a resolution to the issue presented earlier in the poem.

Shakespearean Sonnet

The English playwright William Shakespeare adapted the form of the Petrarchan Sonnet, and this adapted form became a popular form of sonnet in England thereafter.


The English sonnet also consists of 14 lines in iambic pentameter, however, instead of an initial octave, it consists of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) and a final rhymed couplet, with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

The “volta” here occurs before the final couplet. For example, in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, the quatrains begin with seemingly critical remarks about the speaker’s lover:

*My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;* [A]
*Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;* [B]
*If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;* [B]
*If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.* [A]

The final couplet, however, shifts to the speaker’s reflection that his love for here is far beyond such cliched comparisons:

*And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare* [G]
*As any she belied with false compare.* [G]


An ode is a type of lyrical poem, usually written in a formal or elevated style, designed to celebrate or praise a person, place, thing, or idea, to which that poem is addressed.

The term “ode” comes from the Greek word “oide,” which means “song” or “chant.” Though traditional Greek Odes follow a specific formula (with sections termed the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode), later odes are characterized by varying lengths of line, meter, and complexity of stanza forms.

One of the most famous examples of an ode is “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats, which begins by addressing the nightingale directly:

*Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!*


The poem is a reflection on the transience of life and the inevitability of death, which is contrasted with the nightingale’s song, which seems to promise an escape from mortality.


Villanelles are structured poems consisting of 19 lines and a distinctive pattern of repetition and rhyme. They comprise five tercets (three-line stanzas) followed by a quatrain (four-line stanza). The rhyme scheme is typically ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA.

The first and last lines of the opening tercet are used as refrains that are repeated alternately as the final lines of the following stanzas (tercets). Both then appear together as the final two lines of the quatrain.

A famous example is “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas. Note its pattern of refrains, which plea for resistance against death’s inevitability:

*Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.*

*Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.*

*Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.*


Blank Verse

Blank verse is a form of poetry that does not use rhyme but instead relies on a consistent metrical pattern, usually iambic pentameter.

The origin of blank verse can be traced back to Italy in the 16th century, with the works of Italian Renaissance poets like Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso.

English poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, is often credited with introducing blank verse to English literature in the early 16th century. He used this form in his translation of Books II and IV of the *Aeneid* by the Roman poet Virgil, seeking a way to emulate the structure and dignity of Latin poetry, which (unlike English poetry) did not use rhyme, and relied only upon quantitative meter, which is based on the length of syllables (long and short).


Though quantitative meter does not work well in the English language, the stress-based meter of blank verse was able to capture something of the rhythm and flow of Virgil’s epic without relying on rhyme

Blank verse became a popular form in English, and was the favored verse form of William Shakespeare.


A sestina is a complex poetic form consisting of six stanzas, each with six lines, followed by a three-line tercet known as an “envoi”.

Sestinas follow an intricate pattern of word repetition rather than rhyme: the end words of the first stanza are repeated in a specific order throughout the remaining five stanzas, and then all six words appear in the envoi.

A famous example of a sestina is Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte”, which explores the persona of the warlike 12th-century troubadour Bertran de Born. The first stanza is as follows:

*Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music!
I have no life save when the swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howl I my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.*

In subsequent stanzas, each of these end words (peace, music, etc.) are repeated in the codified order, finally re-appearing together in the envoi.


Free Verse

Free verse, which gained popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries, is a type of poetry that does not adhere to a specific metrical pattern or rhyme scheme. It allows poets greater freedom in their choice of words, rhythm, and structure, and captures the spontaneity and fluidity of spoken language, focusing on the poet’s thoughts and emotions rather than on strict poetic conventions.

Walt Whitman, an American poet, was one of the pioneers of free verse in English literature, as featured in his groundbreaking collection, *Leaves of Grass* (1855).


Poems of Whitman’s collection often employ long lines, enjambment, and unconventional punctuation to create a rhythm that is both fluid and dynamic. One of the most famous poems from the collection is “Song of Myself.” Here are the opening lines:

*I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.*


An elegy is a type of poem that expresses sorrow or mourning, usually for someone who has passed away or for a significant loss. Elegies often reflect on the life and achievements of the person being mourned, paying tribute to their memory while expressing grief over their absence. The tone of an elegy can range from somber and reflective to nostalgic.

Walt Whitman’s 1865 “O Captain! My Captain!” is a well-known elegy. The poem mourns the death of President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated shortly after the end of the American Civil War.


In the poem, Whitman uses the metaphor of a ship’s captain to represent Lincoln, with the ship symbolizing the United States. The poem is distinctive for its frequent exclamations of sorrow, exemplified in the following lines:

*But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.*


A Haiku is a poetic form originating in Japan during the 17th century, notable for its extreme simplicity and brevity.


Haikus are unrhymed and traditionally consist of only three lines, with each line containing a set number of syllables: 5, then 7, then 5.

Haiku’s are often used to capture a single moment in time and to express a feeling of connectedness with the natural world. For example, a well-known haiku by the famous 17th-century poet, Matsuo Basho’s reads:

*An old silent pond
A frog jumps into the pond—
Splash! Silence again.*

In modern adaptations, strict adherence to syllable count may vary; however, the focus on imagery and concision remains central.


A Limerick is a playful and humorous poetic form, originating in Ireland, that often features nonsensical, absurd, or whimsical content.

Characterized by its five-line structure with an AABBA rhyme scheme, the Limerick typically follows a strict meter consisting of “anapestic” metrical feet (i.e. two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, as in “in-ter-**rupt**”).

For example, consider the following limerick by Victorian poet Edward Lear:

*There was an Old Man with a beard
Who said ‘It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen
Four Larks and a Wren
Have all built their nests in my beard!*


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