Bouncing Off Walls
A Primer on Rhyme
Some rhyme basics:1) Rhyme is a rhythmic device. The two words share the same root and only gradually came to be distinguished from each other, with the break not occurring until the 17th century.
2) Rhyme is not a feature of
Classical Latin or Greek poetry, nor any other meter based on quantity
or duration. It
first appeared in Western poetry in a particular kind of verse in
Latin. Its emergence in English poetry corresponds to the emergence of
stressed, vernacular verse.
3) The terms “masculine” and
“feminine” rhyme are were bequeathed to us by the poets of
gender-inflected Romance language included masculine nouns &
modifiers without vowel endings and feminine ones with vowel endings. Thus bel/bella,
The terms are grammatical and have nothing to do with masculine or
characteristics, sexism, or gender roles.
4) Rhyme is predicated on
semantic difference and phonological identity. One of its functions is
these two categories more permeable.
5) In prosody, we can think
of meter as a horizontal structuring device, rhyme as a vertical one.
tends to move the reading eye or voice forward; rhyme tends to arrest
to employ, balance, & manage these impulses is one of the metrical
different kinds of rhyme. The front-stressed Germanic languages,
English, used alliteration rather than end-rhyme. As English evolved
mongrelized with Romance languages it gradually permitted more falling
and more solicitude for word and line endings.
A short study in rhyme: One classic 20th century statement on the semantics of rhyme is William Wimsatt’s “One Relation of Rhyme to Reason” in his 1954 book The Verbal Icon. Wimsatt examines rhyme in Pope and Dryden (18th c), both of whom used predominantly full rhymes and end-stopped lines. His chief argument demonstrates how these poets increased the semantic distance between their rhymed pairs as a way to embody wit and argument.
This way of managing rhyme’s reason can be contrasted with that of Emily Dickinson, who wrote predominantly enjambed lines with a large proportion of partial rhymes. Judy Jo Small argues in her 1990 book, Positive as Sound: Emily Dickinson’s Rhymes, that Dickinson’s technique was the opposite of that of Pope (18th c) and Byron (late 18th c, Romantic). Dickinson used words that are conceptually related, but she increased the phonetic distance between them in order to create and exploit a complex and ambiguous relationship to meaning.
Rhyme can be analyzed or classified in several ways. What matters about these different ways of categorizing rhyme is that each emphasizes a different aspect of rhyme’s formal and semantic action.
Analyzing rhyme according to its sound we pay attention to what part of each word is included in the sound relationship. Here is a graphic scheme for summarizing the possibilities. C=a consonant or consonant cluster, V=a vowel or diphthong. I’ve underlined the letter representing the part of the word that makes the pattern.
Conventional rhyme: Some partial rhymes are conventional. “Love” for example has few full rhymes: above, shove, dove, glove, of, etc., so almost any off-rhyme on “love” has been honored by convention & some are so common as to be almost unheard. Poets have also needed rhymes for “heaven,” which has none, so consonantal rhymes, such as “proven”, “given”, or “even” have become conventional. Sight rhyme (of words that look like they should rhyme, but don't) also accounts for some conventionalized near-misses.Historical rhymes are partial rhymes that were once true rhymes. Pronunciation of consonants is relatively stable, but pronunciation of vowels shifts rather freely over time and also from region to region. In fact, both rhyme and meter can be used to identify lost or uncertain pronunciations—in Chaucer, for example. English experienced a great “vowel shift” beginning in the late 16th century, before which “die” rhymed with “free”, “wind” (as in “south wind”) rhymed with “pined”, “none” rhymed with “alone,” and “foot” rhymed with “root.” We not only must recognize these rhymes as full rhymes in early poems, we must recognize that later poets occasionally used these rhymes as a matter of tradition, homage, or commentary—as when Dickinson rhymed “die” with “be” & Auden rhymed “lie” with “poetry.”
If you are not a close student of the history of English you will not always know when a rhyme is historical and when simply conventional. Does Marvell rhyme “would” with “flood” because he pronounced them the same? or because it was conventional to take liberties with those “oo” rhymes? Note that in Donne’s poems we find “die” rhymed both ways, e.g. with “fly” or “high” in some poems, with “thee” and “me” in others – most famously, at the end of “Death Be Not Proud” he rhymes it with “eternally.” Watch for this and other historical rhymes as you read.
Rhymes are further
complicated in Scottish poetry where Scots and English dictions
Some pronunciations that are archaic in English are current in Scots,
that appear to be English may be given a Scots pronunciation if they
a Scots or mixed-diction context. Archaic pronunciations are especially
to be preserved in traditional ballads – or imitated in genres that
Anylzing rhyme as monosyllabic
vs. polysyllabic, masculine vs. feminine is a pretty simple system:
rhymes can also be categorized by the placement of stress and this is where it really starts
to get interesting. The rhyme types
listed below not only expand the range of rhyme available to a poet,
greatly alter a poem’s tone, increasing its aural subtlety – or its
comedy. The basic variables are: a stressed syllable, an unstressed
syllable, and a “promoted
stress” in which a secondary stress is aurally promoted by rhyming.
Here are examples of the combinations. I’ll leave off rhymes of stressed syllable with stressed syllable, since that’s covered above. Some of the examples here are full rhymes, some consonance. Note that meter may influenced whether a rhyming syllable is heard as unstressed or a promoted secondary stress. I’ve assumed all the words below are occurring at line-ends where both meter and rhyme tend to promote a final secondary stress.
is also categorized by its position in the line and in the stanza.
Position in the line is the simplest, consisting of:
Position in the stanza involves effects of both pattern/scheme and interval.
royal, ottava rima, & the various sonnet forms are all made by
these fundamental parts. Irregular odes, in which long stanzas are
with irregular rhyme schemes and (occasionally) unrhymed lines, also
parts to generate passages of aural and semantic unity. See the “Quick
Reference” page on the course web site and entries in the
The most complex aspect of rhyme is its relationship to grammar and syntax.
This is where rhyme as semantic configuration becomes most apparent. No scheme of classification exists –thank God– but here are some ways to slice the view.
Consider whether rhymed words are substantive, auxiliary, or function words, and how these are paired or mixed.
Watch for noun/noun, verb/verb, noun/modifier, etc. Rhymes of nouns with verbs have a particular effect of alternately stopping and pushing momentum, for example, as in the opening of R. Browning’s “My Last Duchess”, for example.
Rhyming on function words is mostly a modern phenomenon, but Donne rhymed on auxiliary verbs, leaving the main verb dangling out there in imagination until the eye completed the line turn and found it; Robert Browning did the same and added prepositions. His management of enjambed rhyme is prefigured in some of Shelley—the stanzas of “Adonais” e.g.
Consider the differences between end-stopped lines rhyming and enjambed lines rhyming, and how the effect interacts with the question of substantive vs. other kinds of words.
Consider the rhetorical effects of pairing the rhymed words. Most of these effects will be context-specific, but here are a few examples.
Poets whose rhymes make particular rich study include Pope, Blake, Byron, Dickinson, Hopkins, Yeats, Wilfred Owen, Randall Jarrell.
Lastly, rhyme can also be examined by the degree of complication involved in the poem’s entire sound patterning. This is less a matter of categorizing than of simply listening.
One shining example:
The sound patterning in most poems (beyond rhyme scheme) is less systematic, though it may be both aurally and semantically powerful. See, for example, Blake's “The Divine Image,”
these poems to those in which rhyme is scarce, or where most rhymes are
and only a few strike full clear notes. Shakespeare’s couplets rounding
blank-verse speeches in his plays are a famous example. Rhyme at the
end of a
free verse poem might be comparable. A modern example is Marianne
Steeple-Jack,” where each sestet is anchored by only a single pair of