Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Rhyme in Poetry

The following notes concern the uses of rhyme in poetry. As with all poetic devices, the purpose in commentary is not only to say what kind of rhyme is being employed, but to suggest some ideas on why and how it is used, and to what effect - that is, we aim to move from identification to interpretation.

1.   Rhyme is the coincidence of sounds. It is principally an aural effect, but it can often be swiftly spotted by the eye, and so can serve as a visual aid to the formal structure of a poem. Rhyme can be subdivided into various types.

Full (or perfect) rhyme: the last stressed vowel sound and the sounds following it are identical. There are two kinds:

Stressed (or masculine) rhyme occurs when the stressed vowel is on the last metrical beat of a line, as in the ent sound of the following:

Forget not yet the tried intent
Of such a truth as I have meant,
My great travail so gladly spent
      Forget not yet. 
                                            (Sir Thomas Wyatt)

Unstressed (or feminine) rhyme occurs when one or more unstressed syllables follow the final stressed syllable: clueless, shoeless; Hannibal the cannibal; starting, parting. The following quatrain alternates masculine and feminine rhymes:

The time is come, I must depart
    from thee, ah famous city;
I never yet to rue my smart,
    did find that thou had'st pity.  (Isabella Whitney)

Half rhyme (also known as slant rhyme): either vowel sound or consonants rhyme, but not both.
  • Vowel rhyme (assonance): vowels rhyme, consonants don't: moon, food; sun, rut; cart, path.
  • Pararhyme: vowel sounds differ, final consonants coincide.
Partial rhymes (yet another term for half rhymes) are particularly frequent in poetry from the earliest twentieth century onwards. They allow for a range of effects, building up a pattern of subtle echoes rather than the heavy and predictable repetitions which are always a risk in full rhyme. The First World War poet Wilfred Owen makes extensive use of pararhyme (see his 'Strange Meeting', for example). The opening lines from 'Insensibility' below also include a vowel rhyme (lines 3-4) an internal rhyme (before, sore) and other repetitions threaded across the lines (the 'a' sound in Happy, compassion and alleys). These acoustic effects heighten the verse to the level of a dignified incantation, in tension with the bitterness of the thought (it is better in war not to feel anything):

Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers    [mocks
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers.

The first lines of W B Yeats's 'Easter 1916' play full rhyme and partial rhyme against each other. In line 4, the half rhyme works with a braking metrical effect to slow the short lines down to a meditative register of thought:

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.

Eye Rhyme (or printer's rhyme). Rhyme is harder in English than, say, Italian, where words with masculine or feminine endings offer far more possibilities for end rhyme (and make the rhyme, when it comes, less of a sensation). Poetic license in English verse thus allows the poet to rhyme words which look as if they rhyme, even if the sound is different: bough, enough; power, lower; hour, four. To complicate matters, some words which look like eye rhymes now might have been perfect rhymes in the writer's time, or in the writer's particular accent. Shakespeare could rhyme past and waste, and Wordsworth famously rhymes water with matter (in 'The Leech Gatherer'). In 'Adonais', Shelley sets himself the task of a quadruple rhyme on the b sound, and we may consider the resulting variety as a mix of perfect rhyme, half rhyme and eye rhyme:

I weep for Adonais-he is dead!
O, weep for Adonais! though our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years
To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
And teach them thine own sorrow, say: "With me
Died Adonais; till the Future dares
Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity!"

Where wert thou, mighty Mother, when he lay,
When thy Son lay, pierced by the shaft which flies
In darkness? where was lorn Urania
When Adonais died? With veiled eyes,
Mid listening Echoes, in her Paradise
She sate, while one, with soft enamoured breath,
Rekindled all the fading melodies
With which, like flowers that mock the corse beneath,
He had adorned and hid the coming bulk of death.

2.  The terms full rhyme, half rhyme and eye rhyme described above refer to the type of rhyme. We should also note the position of the rhyme: an end rhyme occurs, unsurprisingly, at the end of the line. When end rhyme appears in lines which are themselves end-stopped, there is a dramatic sense of closure (see lines 1 and 3 of the extract from Shelley above). an internal rhyme occurs when at least one of the rhyming words is in a medial position, rhyming with another medial word or an end word.

3. Rhyme normally falls into patterns which are classified as schemes. The most common are:

Couplet: lines rhyme aabb etc. Couplets are closed when they present self-contained statements,a nd open when we have to read on from the second line to complete the sense. Dryden and Pope made extensive and sophisticated use of couplets - called 'heroic couplets' in the late seventeenth century because they frequently appeared in heroic, that is, epic verse. Consider the opening of Dryden's 'Absalom and Achitophel':

In pious times, e'r Priest-craft did begin,
Before Polygamy was made a sin;
When man, on many, multiply'd his kind,
E'r one to one was, cursedly, confind:
When Nature prompted, and no law deny'd
Promiscuous use of Concubine and Bride;
Then, Israel's monarch, after Heaven's own heart,
His vigorous warmth did, variously, impart
To Wives and Slaves; and, wide as his command,
Scatter'd his maker's Image through the Land.

The poem is a political satire, our appreciation of which depends on recognition of figures from the poet's own time. Hence it makes little sense in a practical critical exercise, ripped away from its sense-making context. Still, on a purely formal level we can appreciate how the closed couplets form a tension with the syntax: the first six lines enclose three sub-clauses, and while we want to read on to see how the sentence will resolve into a main clause (which it does, on the word Then), at the same time the perfectly formed couplets arrest our attention and act as a counterpoint to this forward momentum. We notice, too, how the open couplet ending 'did variously impart / To wives and slaves' enacts the promiscuous sexual activity which is being euphemistically described here. The writing,  flows freely, so to speak,  from one line into the next, and the vigour of the action carries us into the caesura after 'Slaves'. In the last couplet, command sits at the end of the line, the comma enforcing a brief suspenseful moment before the verb 'Scatter'd' (emphasised by a the trochaic inversion) appears as a wonderful and bawdy comic relief. Other masters of the couplet form include including Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, George Crabbe and Jonathan Swift.

Cross-rhyme consists of patterns such as abab cdcd, and frequently appears in the form of quatrains:

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.  (Blake, 'London')

Blake here typically picks up a form associated with hymn and nursery rhyme and uses it as the vehicle for intense and caustic castigation of moral corruption.

Arch-rhyme consists of the pattern abba, with the a sound acting like an arch enclosing the central couplet. Perhaps the most famous sustained example is Tennyson's In Memoriam:

I held it truth, with him who sings
   To one clear harp in divers tones,
   That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.

Single rhyme schemes denote a form with only one set of rhyming lines: abac, aba cdc, abcb etc. Single rhymes are common in ballads and other verse in the folk tradition, like 'The Cuckoo':

Cuckoo, The

The cuckoo is a pretty bird,
She sings as she flies;
She bringeth good tidings,
She telleth no lies;
She sucketh sweet flowers
To keep her voice clear,
And when she sings Cuckoo,
The summer draweth near.

O meeting is a pleasure
And parting is a grief;
An inconstant lover
Is worse than a thief;
A thief can but rob me
Of all that I have,
But an inconstant lover,
Will bring me to the grave.

The grave it will receive me
And bring me to dust.
An inconstant lover
No maiden can trust;
He'll court you, cajole you
Poor maids to deceive;
There is not one in twenty
A maiden can believe.

Come all you sweet maidens
Wherever you be,
Your hearts - do not hang them
On a sycamore tree.
The leaf it will wither,
The root will decay;
Alack! I'm foresaken
And wasting away.

Because songs already have the unifying elements of music, they have less need for internal acoustic patterns. The lack of a secondary rhyme perhaps gives still more weight to the mono b rhyme in each stanza.

Rhyme and Reason

Each rhyming poem we read will give rise to particular questions. Those below illustrate the kinds of enquiry that careful reading may prompt:

Rhyme schemes like those above create different expectations in the reader: in an arch scheme, for example, the final a rhyme can even come as something of a surprise, as the a sound may have drifted out of view and a new idea taken over our attention. How does a writer exploit, satisfy, or subvert the psychological experience of the chosen rhyme scheme?

How emphatic are the rhyme words? Does the rhyming word carry the principal meaning of the line, or lead us towards / away from it? Is it made prominent by metre, syntax, punctuation?

Continuing from the last question, is the poet countering a sense of finality which a rhyme creates by stretching the syntax across lines, creating marked mid-line pauses etc.?

Has the poet tried to make the rhyme sounds less emphatic? If so, what diversionary tactics has she used?

Is the rhyme word predictable or surprising? Does it surprise or satisfy our expectations?

Rhyme is often present in notionally non-rhyming poetry, such as blank verse (Paradise Lost) or modern free verse. There is no obligation for rhyme to be regular: a poem by T S Eliot, for example, may dip in and out of rhyme as part of its story.

Further resources:

Online guide to rhyme in poetry

Alberto Rios, Glossary of Rhymes

Books which discuss rhyme with particular care include John Leonard, The Poetry Handbook and Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled. A glossary for reference is essential. Recommended: J A Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory; M H Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms.