The night before taking the GRE Literature in English Subject Test (just as fun as it sounds) I was cozying up with my Norton anthology, paging through introductions to lots of great literature I really didn’t have time to read but needed to be marginally familiar with for this exam. This was going fairly well–I was quickly learning things of little actual value that I would never remember after the test was over–when I flipped to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s long poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” a requiem for a dead friend that took Tennyson many, many years to write.
And it took me many, many minutes to read, many minutes I’d intended to spend skimming the surface of centuries worth of the British and American literary canons. But something about Tennyson’s slow, lyrical quatrains pulled me in and I spent forty minutes or so reading many (though not all) of the poem’s 133 cantos, each four or so quatrains long.
A quatrain is any stanza or poem form of four lines—line length, rhyme scheme, meter don’t matter—if there are four lines in the stanza, it’s a quatrain. A lot of my favorite poets favor quatrains: Dickinson (“I Died for Beauty”), Nash (“The Hippopotamus”), Blake (“The Tyger”), to name a few. And it’s a convenient stanza length for memorization. Here’s one of my favorite quatrains, from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.” Read more about it here.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it