Terza rima is a poetic form consisting of tercets connected by an interlinking rhyme scheme in which the second line of one stanza rhymes with the first and third lines of the following stanza—aba bcb cdc ded efe, etc. The form, which was introduced by Dante in his La Divina Commedia, originally ended with a single line rhyming with the second line of the preceding stanza, but over the centuries poets have used different endings.
Terza rima creates a strong sense of forward momentum combined with a reassuring sense of continuity, but it’s widely regarded as a difficult form for poets. During composition, it’s difficult to prevent the continuous interconnection of the stanzas from overpowering the narrative or argumentative trajectory of the poem.
Difficulty aside, terza rima has had a strong allure for poets from Dante’s time to the present. The form became popular in Italy immediately after Dante’s work was published, and it soon spread to France, England, and the rest of Europe. It was used by the English Romantics and the French Symbolists, and it was employed by Modernist poets such as Yeats, Eliot, and Auden. A well-known example is Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” which comprises five sonnet-length sections each with a rhyme scheme of aba bcb cdc ded ee.