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What Is a Triolet?

By Angie Bates
Updated May 17, 2024
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Similar to a rondeau, a triolet is a poetic form with a set structure and repeating lines. Originating in France around the 13th century, a triolet consists of eight lines that use only two rhymes. The first line is repeated in the middle of the poem, and the couplet which begins the poem also ends it. A triolet is often used to convey humorous ideas but may address serious thoughts as well.

Meaning "triplet" in French, a triolet is named after the repeated first line. This line is seen three times in the poem, at line one, four, and seven. The second line only repeats once, at line eight, but both lines together govern the rhyme scheme of a triolet. Since lines four and seven are repeated, they must rhyme with line one, but lines three and five also rhyme with the first line. Line six rhymes with the repeated phrase in lines two and eight, thus creating only two rhymes in the poem.

Although modern triolets are frequently humorous, earlier poems were often about serious topics. A Benedictine monk, Patrick Carey, wrote the earliest surviving triolets. His poems consisted mainly of devotionals. Robert Bridges, a 19th century English poet who briefly brought the form into popularity, also wrote mostly serious pieces. After the 19th century, the triolet fell out of style and is used rarely compared to other forms.

The triolet's repetition and brevity are the usual appeals of this type of poem. Writers of comedic poems may use the repetition to accentuate a silly or humorous aspect of their topic or, like masterfully written serious pieces, add layers of meaning to each successive repetition. This technique often turns a seemingly simple poem into a complex work of art.

For example, the English poet Thomas Hardy begins his triolet "How Great is My Grief" with the statement "how great is my grief, my joys how few." The statement is a complete thought, indicating his present frame of mind. Lines six and seven, however, state "nor loving kindness helped to show thee / how great is my grief, my joys how few." Here Hardy using the repeated first line as the second half of a more complex sentence, now indicating, not his frame of mind, but the inability of the person the poem addresses to comprehend the speaker's frame of mind. This shift in meanings helps to give the seemingly simple poem complexity.

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