1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Terza Rima

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TERZA RIMA, or “third rhyme,” a form of verse adapted from the Italian poets of the 13th century. Its origin has been attributed by some to the three-lined ritournel, which was an early Italian form of popular poetry, and by others to the sirventes of the Provençal troubadours. The serventese incatenato of the latter was an arrangement of triple rhymes, and unquestionably appears to have a relation with terza rima; this connexion becomes almost a certainty when we consider the admiration expressed by the Tuscan poets of the 13th century for the metrical inventions of their forerunners, the Provençals. In Italian, a stanza of terza rima consists of three lines of eleven syllables, linked with the next stanza, and with the next, and so on, by a recurrence of rhymes: thus aba, bcb, cdc, ded, &c., so that, however long the poem is, it can be divided nowhere without severing the continuity of the rhyme. Schuchardt has developed an ingenious theory that these successive terzinas are really chains of ritournels, just as ottava rima, according to the same theory, is a chain of rispetti. There were, unquestionably, chains of interwoven triple rhymed lines before the days of Dante, but it was certainly he who raised terza rima from the category of folk-verse, and gave it artistic character. What this character is may best be seen by an examination of the austere and majestic lines with which the Inferno opens, no more perfect example of terza rima having ever been composed:—

“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi retrovai per una selva obscura,
Che la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual'era è cosa dura
Questà selva selvaggia ed aspra e forte,
Che nel pensier rinnova la paura!”

It is impossible, however, to break off here, since there is no rhyme to forte, which has to be supplied twice in the succeeding terzina, where, however, a fresh rhyme, trovai, is introduced, linking the whole to a still further terzina, and so on, indefinitely. The only way in which a poem in terza rima can be closed is by abandoning a rhyme, as at the end of Canto 1 of the Inferno, where no third rhyme is supplied to Pietro and dietro. Boccaccio wrote terza rima in closing following of Dante, but it has not been a form very frequently adopted by Italian poets. Nor has the extreme difficulty of sustaining dignity and force in these complicated chains of verse made writers in other languages very anxious to adventure on terza rima. In the age of Elizabeth, Samuel Daniel employed it in his “Epistle to the Countess of Bedford,” but he found no followers. Probably the most successfully sustained poem in terza rima in the English language is Mrs Browning's Casa Guidi Windows (1851). The Germans have always had an ambition to write in terza rima. It was used by Paul Schede, a writer of whom little is known, before the close of the 16th century, and repeatedly by Martin Opitz (1597-1639), who called the form drittreime. Two centuries and a half later, W. Schlegel had the courage to translate Dante in the metre of the Italian; and it was used for original poems by Chamisso and Rückert. Goethe, in 1826, addressed a poem in terza rima to the praise of Schiller, and there is a passage in this metre at the beginning of the second part of Faust.

See Hugo Schuchardt, Ritournell und Terzine (Halle, 1875).

 (E. G.)