English Literature


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Understanding the Octave Form in Poetry

The octave form has a long history in English literature and is a popular choice among poets. Notable examples of octave poetry can be found in the Romantic period, including Lord Byron's 'Beppo' (1817) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)' (1850). In this article, we will delve into the meaning and origins of the octave form, as well as its significance in poetry throughout different periods.

History of the Octave

The octave is a stanza or poem consisting of eight lines. This form was first popularized in medieval Italy by poets like Francesco Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio. It was then brought to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century, as seen in his poems such as 'Whoso List to Hunt, I Know Where is an Hind.' Wyatt's use of the octave helped to establish it in English literature.

Romanticism and the Octave

The Romantic movement, which flourished from 1800 to 1850 in the UK and Europe, aimed to evoke emotional responses and emphasized the importance of nature and individual experience. Poets of this period looked to medieval forms of poetry, including the Italian octave, as a means to break away from the Enlightenment movement. John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, among others, incorporated Italian forms of ottava rima and the Petrarchan sonnet into their work, further solidifying the octave's significance in poetry.

Forms of the Octave

Ottava rima is a type of Italian octave with ten or eleven syllables per line, while Petrarchan sonnets follow the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA CDECDE. As both forms use an octave, it became a prominent feature in Romantic poetry. Lord Byron, a prominent Romantic poet, often used the octave in his work, as seen in his poem 'Beppo' (1817).

The Octave in Modern Times

The octave has remained a popular form of stanza in the 20th and 21st centuries, thanks to its historical significance in the sonnet. As poets began to experiment with traditional forms, they often retained the octave in their poems. A well-known example is Seamus Heaney's poem, 'The Forge' (2013), which includes an octave in its structure.

Structure and Common Features

Octaves can be found in any poem with an eight-line stanza. While there is no set trait that all octaves share, there are some common features that are frequently found in the form. One of the most important characteristics of an octave is its eight-line structure. Additionally, the meter and rhyme scheme of the poem are crucial to the form. Most often, octaves are written in iambic pentameter, a line of verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one unstressed and one stressed syllable. This meter was first observed in Petrarchan sonnets and has continued to be used throughout the centuries. An example of iambic pentameter can be found in the first stanza of John Donne's poem 'Death Be Not Proud' (1633).


In conclusion, the octave form has a rich history in English literature and has been utilized by poets throughout different periods. While there are various forms and styles of the octave, their common features, such as the eight-line structure and consistent meter, make them a significant and recognizable part of poetry. Understanding the various types of octaves and how they are utilized in poetry can enhance one's appreciation for the form and structure of a poem.

The Versatility of Octaves in Poetry

When it comes to poetic forms, octaves have certainly made their mark. Originating in Italy and later gaining popularity in England, this form of stanza continues to be a favorite among poets today.

The Origins of Ottava Rima

Ottava rima was first introduced by the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, who employed a rhyme scheme and syllable count of 10 or 11 to create eight-line stanzas. It was later introduced in England by Sir Thomas Wyatt and became a staple in the Romanticism movement.

Petrarch and Boccaccio: A Dynamic Duo

Interestingly, both Petrarch and Boccaccio were contemporaries and corresponded with each other. Their contributions to poetry, including the creation of the octave form, have stood the test of time.

The Power of Octaves in Poetry

Octaves have proven to be a powerful and versatile unit in poetry, conveying a single idea or theme within a poem. In Petrarchan sonnets, the octave often presents a dilemma that is resolved in the sestet. Its rhyme scheme and meter add a lyrical quality to the poem, making it more memorable.

The Octave: A Vital Component of Poetry

The first stanza of a Petrarchan sonnet typically follows the rhyme scheme and meter of an octave. However, octaves can also exist within larger pieces of poetry, showcasing their importance and ability to stand on their own as a complete poem. By understanding the different types of octaves and their characteristics, one can gain a deeper appreciation for the craft of poetry.

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