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What Is Quintain?

L. Whitaker
L. Whitaker

Quintain refers to a category of poetic forms that have five lines, including the cinquain, limerick, cinqku, quintilla, and lanterne. Cinquain was originally defined as any poem or stanza with a total of five lines. Modern use of the term typically specifies a specific format, leaving quintain as a descriptor for whatever falls under the category of five-line works. The most popularly recognized quintain might be the humorous folk limerick, but it is also found in the work of serious poets such as Robert Frost.

The modern form of the cinquain was developed by poet Adelaide Crapsey, introduced in her 1915 poetry collection. This format used a steadily increased syllabic count, building from two syllables to eight, and then abruptly reducing back to two syllables in the final line. Crapsey's cinquain form typically avoids end rhymes.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Another cinquain form that is often taught in primary schools is known as the didactic cinquain. This form ignores syllable count, instead providing guidelines for number of words in each line. In one version, there is a title of one word that names the poem's subject, followed by a line containing two adjectives that are descriptive of the title subject. The next line offers an informative phrase containing three words, and the following line provides four words that evoke emotions related to the subject. A final line states one word that is equivalent to the title word.

The limerick is a humorous five-line quintain form that has been in use for centuries. Many limericks use crude language or sexual connotations that render them unprintable in mainstream venues. Some scholars view the limerick as a means of transgressing societal values by the verbal violation of taboos.

Lesser known quintain forms include the cinqku, quintilla, and lanterne. Cinqku, a form originated by poet Denis Garrison, blends the tanka and cinquain formats to produce a five-line poem with 17 total syllables. A Spanish format called quintilla uses five lines of eight syllables each, in which there can be only one rhyming couplet. The lanterne form employs a specific syllabic pattern, and typically every line in a lanterne is intended to be a complete stand-alone phrase.

One well-known poet who employed the quintain form in his work is Robert Frost. His poems often incorporate some variation on the quintain. Examples of Frost's poetry that use a unique version of the standard five-line form include The Road Not Taken and Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.

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