Friday, December 29, 2006

Ottava Rima

Ottava rima was a favorite verse form of the Italian Renaissance poets. It developed out of the troubadour tradition and was first popularized by Giovanni Boccaccio in such long poems as Teseida and Filostrato. Many of the great Italian epic poems used ottava rima, including Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, Pulci’s Morgante Maggiore, and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Byron’s Don Juan is a good example of ottava rima in English.

My own verse drama Valentino was written in 2,008 lines of ottava rima. You can read a sample on my website.

After toying with the idea of writing Valentino in rhyming couplets—in the tradition of Molière—I instead chose ottava rima for its variety, flexibility, and its historical connection to Renaissance Italy: one of my characters, Lucrezia Borgia, was a patronness of Ariosto’s, and she is mentioned favorably in Orlando Furioso.

The form of ottava rima is eight lines with the rhyme scheme a-b-a-b-a-b-c-c. In English, the lines are usually iambic pentameter.

For a long poem (or verse drama) ottava rima has an advantage over rhyming couplets, in that the alternating rhymes (a-b-a-b-a-b) are less predictable than rhyming every odd line with the even line that follows (a-a-b-b-c-c).

Ottava rima 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.

Here is an example of ottava rima from Valentino. This two-stanza monologue occurs at the end of Act Two, Scene 1. Lucrezia Borgia is recovering from a miscarriage after being poisoned by an ex-lover, Francesco Orsini. Her brother, Valentino (Cesare Borgia), has just escaped a trap set for him by Francesco. Lucrezia tries to delay Francesco from pursuing her brother. Francesco draws his sword, threatening to rape and kill her. When she mocks him, he commands her to hold her tongue.

Lucrezia replies:

My words can save you from the other side.
I’m standing between you and your Creator.
But if my brother hears that I have died,
He’ll stop at nothing, kill you now or later.
You may try hiding, but he’ll have your hide.
My brother always knew you were a traitor —
Your colors are more Ghibelline than Guelph.
But if you kill me, then you kill yourself.
He found you out, and he will do you in.
My brother is a beast you’ll never tame.
He’ll kill you first, and then he’ll kill your kin.
He’ll put your field and family to flame.
He’ll leave them crying, dying in the din.
I swear he’ll burn all books that bear your name,
Till all your dreams are buried in the sod.
My brother is the bloody hand of God.

You’ll notice, of course, that the rhyme scheme follows the ottava rima form.

First stanza:

a – side
b – Creator
a – died
b – later
a – hide
b – traitor
c – Guelph
c – yourself

Second stanza:

a – in
b – tame
a – kin
b – flame
a – din
b – name
c – sod
c – God

Also, notice that the strongest lines come at the end of the stanzas, and that the rhyming couplets add rhetorical force.

The message of the first stanza is summarized in the line: “But if you kill me, then you kill yourself.” The word "Guelph" anticipates the word "yourself."

The second stanza builds on that idea, extending the threat to Francesco’s home, his family, and to the very memory of his existence, ending with the summation: “My brother is the bloody hand of God.” The word "sod" anticipates the word "God."

So we see that ottava rima can work well for dramatic monologue. Can ottava rima also be used in dialogue?

I’ll discuss that next.

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