The literal translation of terza rima from Italian is 'third rhyme'. Terza rima is a three-line stanza using chain rhyme in the pattern a-b-a, b-c-b, c-d-c, d-e-d. There is no limit to the number of lines, but poems or sections of poems written in terza rima end with either a single line or couplet repeating the rhyme of the middle line of the final tercet. The two possible endings for the example above are d-e-d, e or d-e-d, e-e. There is no set rhythm for terza rima, but in English, iambic pentameter is generally preferred.
The first known use of terza rima is in Dante's Divina Commedia. In creating the form, Dante may have been influenced by the sirventes, a lyric form used by the Provençal troubadours. The three-line pattern may have been intended to suggest the Holy Trinity. Inspired by Dante, other Italian poets, including Petrarch and Boccaccio, began using the form.
The first English poet to write in terza rima was Geoffrey Chaucer, who used it for his Complaint to His Lady. Although a difficult form to use in English because of the relative paucity of rhyme words available in a language which has, in comparison with Italian, a more complex phonology, terza rima has been used by Wyatt, Milton, Byron (in his Prophecy of Dante) and Shelley (in his Ode to the West Wind and The Triumph of Life). Thomas Hardy also used the form of meter in 'Friends Beyond' to interlink the characters and continue the flow of the poem. A number of 20th-century poets also employed the form. These include W. H. Auden, Andrew Cannon, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Jennings, Philip Larkin, Archibald MacLeish, James Merrill, Jacqueline Osherow, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Clark Ashton Smith, Derek Walcott, Richard Wilbur and William Carlos Williams. Edward Lowbury's adaptation of the form to six syllabled lines has been named piccola terza rima.
Not surprisingly, the form has also been used in translations of the Divina Commedia. Perhaps the most notable examples are Robert Pinsky's version of the Inferno, Laurence Binyon's version of the entire Divina Commedia, Dorothy L. Sayers's and the recent version by Peter Dale.
The opening lines of the Divina Commedia: