Ottava rima [ot-ahv-a-ree-ma] was a favorite verse form of the Italian Renaissance poets. It developed out of the troubadour tradition and was first popularized by Giovanni Boccaccio. Many of the great Italian epic poems used ottava rima, including Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, Pulci’s Morgante Maggiore, and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Originally used for long poems on heroic themes, it also came to be popular in the writing of mock-heroic works.
In English, ottava rima first appeared in Elizabethan translations of Tasso and Ariosto. The form did not become popular for original works, and a section of William Browne's Britannia's Pastorals is the only known original work in the form that survives. The first English poet to write mock-heroic ottava rima was John Hookham Frere, whose 1817 poem Whistlecraft used the form to considerable effect.
Byron read Frere's work and saw the potential of the form. He quickly produced Beppo, his first poem to use the form. Shortly after this, Byron began working on his Don Juan (1819-1824), probably the best-known English poem in ottava rima. Byron also used the form for his Vision of Judgment (1822). Shelley translated the Homeric Hymns into English in ottava rima. In the 20th century, William Butler Yeats used the form, with half rhyme, in several of his best later poems, including "Sailing to Byzantium" and "Among School Children".
Outside of Italian and English, ottava rima has not been widely used, although the Spanish poets Boscan, Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga and Lope de Vega all experimented with it at one time or another. It is also the meter of several medieval Yiddish epic poems, such as the Bovo-Bukh (1507-1508), which were adaptations of Italian epics. In Russia, Pavel Katenin instigated a high-profile dispute on the proper way of translating Italian epics, which resulted in Alexander Pushkin's ottava rima poem "The Little House in Kolomna" (1830), which took its cue from Lord Byron's Beppo. Pushkin's poem opens with a lengthy tongue-in-cheek discussion of the merits of ottava rima.
The ottava rima stanza in English consists of eight lines, usually iambic pentameters. Each stanza consists of three alternate rhymes and one double rhyme, following the a-b-a-b-a-b-c-c pattern.
It takes advantage of the rhymed couplet at the conclusion of the stanza - because the final two lines rhyme, the last word of the stanza is highly anticipated. This is a perfect way to bring a long thought to a close. Often the first six lines will develop an idea which the final line will hammer home.
And now, my example:
He guards the world from his perch way up high
Remembering, perchance a simpler time
Remembering, perhaps, when he could fly
Before the magic began to decline;
The gods left, unworshiped without knowing why
And poets spent years perfecting a rhyme.
Forever he’s locked in sorrow by stone
and yet he’s done nothing for which to atone.
He remembers the Wild Hunt’s magical ride
And the dancers cavorting under the moon,
The circle of stones and the Green Man’s bride
The sacrifice made, begging a boon;
The ships that sailed with the evening tide
And the tales that would make a maiden swoon.
So much forgotten, so much that is lost.
The world still moves forward and yet at what cost?