Since I’ve been working to improve my writing abilities using fixed forms, I decided my annual Valentine’s Day poem to my wife would be a triolet (pronounced “tree-o-lay”), a form I had discovered in high school but never satisfactorily employed. However, the result of this most recent effort was workable enough, and I was encouraged to try some more.
The triolet is originally a medieval French form imported to England in the 17th century by Benedictine monk and poet Patrick Carey. Subsequently utilized by Robert Bridges,George MacDonald, and Thomas Hardy, it remains fairly popular among present day formalists, but is probably not very familiar to the casual reader of poetry.
Like the villanelle and pantoum, the relatively shorter triolet makes use of repeated lines (or repetends) which recur according to a strict pattern. The first line is also the fourth and seventh, and the second line recurs as the final (eighth) line. Additionally the form adheres to a rigid rhyme scheme—ABaAabAB, and the meter is usually iambic tetrameter or pentameter. Ironically, the best triolets are composed so as to conceal, or at least not draw too much attention to, the art I have just laid bare.
As I read more about the triolet—and more examples of it—I discovered that, despite its brevity and reliance on creativity (punning, homonyms, etc) in the recurring lines, the form seems to be employed far more often as a vehicle for serious subject matter than humorous. Indeed, both Carey and MacDonald used the triolet to express devotional themes.
The reasons for this arise, I suspect, from the form itself. Since the inclusion of highly figurative or fanciful language in the first or second lines would make their use as repetends significantly more difficult, the writer tends to stay within the more concrete when composing them. The tendency toward iambic and trochaic as opposed to, say, anapestic rhythms also nudges the writer towards more elevated subjects. Finally, the progressive and, hopefully, revelatory use of the repeated lines are quite well suited to succinct and meditative encapsulation of truth.
The following poems come from a developing triolet sequence based on my devotional readings in the book of 1 John.
Remain; Continue; Stay
Let what you’ve heard abide in you.
Abide in the Father and Son.
The words that are written are true;
let what you’ve heard abide in your
heart’s creed—confess Christ Jesus lord.
Only you who (here’s a sign)
let what you’ve heard abide in you
abide in the Father and Son.
What kind of love our Father’s is,
that we may call ourselves His children!
All without it could not guess
what kind of love our Father’s is,
the hope it gently plants within us.
Some may doubt there’s ever been
that kind of love; our Father’s is,
and we may call ourselves His children.