Forms in Poetry: The Rhyme Royale

by J. M. Pressley
First published: October 14, 2008

The rhyme royale is a bound verse form originating in Middle English, rhyming ababbcc and traditionally composed in iambic pentameter.

The rhyme royale is a bound verse form originating in Middle English, rhyming ababbcc and traditionally composed, as most English verse of its day, in iambic pentameter. The form seems most likely derived from the popular eight-line ottava rima verse—if the fifth line of the ottava rima (rhymed abababcc) is dropped, we have the seven-line stanza of the rhyme royale.

There is, of course, other speculation regarding how the form came about, as its birth has become obscured by the passage of time. Two other prominent theories have it that the rhyme royale is either based upon the seven-line lyric stanzas of Machaut and Deschamps, or that it is a variety of chant royale (a form used to celebrate the guild festivals of France and England, which were popular from the late 13th century well into Chaucer's time). The ottava rima theory seems most valid. The earliest recorded usage in English is Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, giving it the alternate nickname of the "Troilus stanza" (the first verse of which is excerpted below):

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the kyng Priamus sone of Troye,
In louynge how his auentures fellen
Ffro wo to wele, and after out of ioie,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thow help me for tendite
Thise woful vers that wepen as I write.

Chaucer also employed the rhyme royale form in The Parlement of Foules as well as several of the Canterbury Tales ("The Man of Law", "The Clerk", and "The Second Nun").

Despite its mysterious origins, the post-Chaucer rhyme royale grew widely in popularity among English poets, although the actual term "rhyme royale" would not be applied until coined by John Quixley around 1400. Its popularity was helped, no doubt, by the usage of the stanza by King James I (of Biblical fame) in his King's Quair (c. 1425). Gascione (Certayne Notes, 1575) further defined the term by using "royale" with reference to the gravity of its subject matter rather than its more literal, royal association.

The popularity of the verse became dominant by the 15th century, typified by the writings of Barclay, Dunbar, Hawes, Henryson, Hoccleve, and Lydgate, and was used widely in the dramatic works of Bale and Skelton. Even as late as the latter half of the 16th century, Spenser (Four Hymnes) and Shakespeare (The Rape of Lucrece) demonstrated its lofty position as the chief English stanza for serious verse. The first verse of Lucrece provides a popular example:

From the besieged Ardea all in post,
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host,
And to Collatium bears the lightless fire
Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire
And girdle with embracing flames the waist
Of Collatine's fair love, Lucrece the chaste.

The rhyme royale, however, would soon fall into disfavor, marked primarily by the pre-1619 revision of Michael Drayton's work, Mortimeriados, into an ottava rima narrative retitled The Barron's Wars. Until the Neoclassical movement in poetry, the form seems to have languished in obscurity. Wordsworth provides an excellent example of the form in the opening of Resolution and Independence:

There was a roaring in the wind all night;
The rain came heavily and fell in floods;
But now the sun is rising calm and bright;
The birds are singing in the distant woods;
Over his own sweet voice the Stock-dove broods;
The Jay makes answer as the Magpie chatters;
And all the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters.

Though the form cannot be considered as experiencing a rebirth of popularity (compared to, for instance, the contemporary endurance of the sonnet forms), it has seen some life in several poems of W. H. Auden (possibly building on the rediscovery tradition of Wordsworth), and done with great effect in Letter to Lord Byron:

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet's fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord—Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard

As one might tell, the rhyme royale is traditionally used as part of a larger, sequence epic (Rape of Lucrece, for instance, runs for 266 verses). However, the form seems also excellent for terse, simpler poems of one or two verses. A popular comeback may be out of the question, but this plucky verse is worthy of a better fate than oblivion.

Sources:

A Brief History of the Rhyme Royale (J. M. Pressley); The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Preminger and Brogan, ed); Handbook of Poetic Forms (Padgett, ed.); The Poetry Dictionary (John Drury).