What is a Triolet?
The triolet is a short form of French poetry that has been adapted to be used in the English language.
Triolet first appeared in Northern France as a close cousin of the Rondel, in the 13th Century. Surviving from this period are eight examples, indicating a possible older origin. As with many forms of traditional poetry, Triolet seemed to originally be a form of song, referred to as such (or as a Chanson in French), though, in the 14th Century, French songwriter Jean Lescurel published many Triolets, referring to them as Rondel.
By the 15th Century, seven-line Triolets emerged, though they too were referred to as Rondel. Around this time, the form also crossed over into Holland, with several Dutch Triolets being written by Anthonis de Roovere. By the end of the 15th Century, the term Triolet came into use, as the form had evolved away from the Rondel.
Oddly, during the 16th Century, the Triolet fell out of vogue, though returned to fashion in the 17th Century, retaining the Triolet designation. This revival can be attributed to the Fronde—a series of civil wars occurring in France during the French/Spanish war. Triolets, with their short length, were perfect for propaganda, with many being passed around attacking notable figures on both sides.
The earliest Triolet written in English were by Patrick Cary in 1651. Cary was briefly a Benedictine monk and used the form as an expression of devotion to God. What is interesting is that none of Cary’s Triolet were published until the 18th Century and then didn’t receive attention until the early 19th Century when they were republished by Sir William Scott. The two earliest publications of English Triolet were translations of French poet Jacques de Ranchin, who was known as “King of Triolets.”
Robert Bridges was the first poet to become known as a writer of original Triolet in English, with work published to critical acclaim in 1870, mostly due to an article written by Edmund Gosse and printed in 1877 in Cornhill magazine. This article triggered a brief period of popularity for the form in the late 19th Century.
As the form became more popular in English, it also spread to several other languages, notably numerous Triolets written in German, as well as Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. The spread of the form to Brazil led to a derivative form known as the Biolet.
The Triolet is an eight-line single stanza, with the first line repeated as the fourth and seventh lines, as well as the second line repeated as the eighth, and an alternating rhyme scheme.
The structure can be expressed as follows:
Here capitals stand for repeated lines.
In traditional French Triolet the second, sixth and eighth lines tend to be iambic trimeters (meaning three pairs of stressed-unstressed syllables) followed by one amphibrachic foot (meaning a long syllable between two short syllables).
With such a long history, it’s no wonder the use of Triolet has become varied and complex. Originally, the form was used for matters of romance, however this changed during the Fronde when the form became used for humorous and political ends.
The form further changed direction in English, particularly due to the influence of Thomas Hardy, who saw great potential to express despair and poignancy when using the form. His poem ‘How Great My Grief’ is a particularly vivid example of this, as the refrains become a mark of obsession and woe.
In the hands of a great poet, the meaning of the refrains subtly evolve as a story is told and the mood of the piece changes. This is no mean feat in such a short verse, and the Triolet is therefore a particularly rewarding test of a poet’s craft.
© 2019 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.