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What Is Ottava Rima?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 17, 2024
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An ottava rima is a type of poetical verse from Italy. It represents an eight-line piece of rhyming verse. It is one of the vital precursors to the sonnet including the canzone and strambotto. Its earliest known usage comes from the mid-1300s. It is first found in the poetry of Giovani Boccaccio of Certaldo, Tuscany.

The ottava rima has a definite structure, but not a definite length or subject matter. The most definite feature is its rhyming pattern. All ottava rimas are eight lines in length, with the first, third and fifth lines rhyming with one another. The second, fourth and sixth lines also rhyme with one another, but are a different rhyme than the odd numbers. The final two lines, the seventh and eighth, form a rhyming couplet giving the overall poem an abababcc pattern.

A large number of ottava rima poems employ iambic pentameter, though other types of meter can be used. The iambic pentameter consists of 10 syllables split into five feet. A foot is a basic unit of poetic meter. The first syllable of each foot is unstressed and the second is stressed. This produces a da-DUM, da-DUM effect.

Poems employing this rhyming pattern can include an infinite number of verses. Long poems tend to be split into cantos, which are the poetic equivalent of a chapter. Cantos can be found in poems such as Dante Aligheri’s “Divine Comedy.” These kinds of poems were often used for medieval romance poetry and mock epics.

The earliest known examples of the ottava rima were written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 1340s. His first two examples of the poetic form were “Il Filostato” and “Teseida.” Filostato is a poem eight-canto long about the love between Troilus, the son of Trojan King Priam, and Cressida. Teseida concerns the love triangle between Palemone, Arcita and Emilia. Both poems inspired Geoffrey Chaucer’s later work, “The Canterbury Tales.”

Ottava rima first appeared in English in the 16th century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and William Wordsworth were well-known users of the poetic form. Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” uses the ottava rima as its main structure. William Butler Yeats also employed it in many of his poems including “Among School Children,” and a verse from his poem “Sailing to Byzantium” ably sums up the style:

“That is no country for old men. The young

In one another's arms, birds in the trees

— Those dying generations— at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unaging intellect.”

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