Susan Tichy
George Mason

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 Medieval 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 Provençal, whose gender-inflected Romance language included masculine nouns & modifiers without vowel endings and feminine ones with vowel endings. Thus bel/bella, fresc/fresca, blanc/blanca. The terms are grammatical and have nothing to do with masculine or feminine characteristics, sexism, or gender roles.

4) Rhyme is predicated on semantic difference and phonological identity. One of its functions is to make these two categories more permeable.

5) In prosody, we can think of meter as a horizontal structuring device, rhyme as a vertical one. Meter tends to move the reading eye or voice forward; rhyme tends to arrest it. How to employ, balance, & manage these impulses is one of the metrical poet’s principal artistic skills.

5) Different languages employ different kinds of rhyme. The front-stressed Germanic languages, including Old English, used alliteration rather than end-rhyme. As English evolved and became mongrelized with Romance languages it gradually permitted more falling rhythm 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.


C V C = alliteration

See the heavy alliteration of Hopkins, Loy, Moore, & Dylan Thomas


black/boat, cross/cat, whack / William, riot/rich, shore / shallow, only/oral, after/only

once/where (would not qualify in old alliterative meter where vowels alliterate with vowels only)

In Old English alliterative meter any two vowels were considered to alliterate with each other. This reflects the dominance of consonants in the language. Alliterating vowels are only recognizable in an alliterative meter or other context where alliteration establishes a pattern or expectation.

C V C = assonance

black/cat, boat/phone, green / dream

“Near assonance” is not generally considered a rhyme: at that point reader recognition begins to fail.

C V C = consonance

The variety of consonantal rhyme again reflects the consonant’s importance in English. Note that “zero consonance” is the end-rhyme equivalent of the Old English practice of alliterating vowels together.

cat/boat, phone/line, bliss / dress, flute/note, thought /out, call/fill, pitch/church, what / bat, mind/ground, gibe/club, shrill/beautiful, pause/decays

full consonance: cat/boat, phone/line, school/wheel, hymn/home

semi-consonance: rides/is, pact/back. Readers vary in the degree of sound similarity they honor. Some group all similar consonants, such as green/dream, tip/fib, far/wow.

zero consonance: way/sea, no/sue

rich consonance: dead/deed, back/buck (also called “frame rhyme”)

C V C = full rhyme

black shack, cross boss

Varieties treated in tables below.

CVC  = frame rhyme

back/buck, dead/deed, peer/pare

Whatever you call it, it’s a combination of alliteration and consonance.

C V C = rich rhyme

bat/bat, see/sea

Should involve different meaning, e.g. baseball bat & flying rodent.

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 mingle. Some pronunciations that are archaic in English are current in Scots, and words that appear to be English may be given a Scots pronunciation if they appear in a Scots or mixed-diction context. Archaic pronunciations are especially likely to be preserved in traditional ballads – or imitated in genres that descend from them.

Anylzing rhyme as monosyllabic vs. polysyllabic, masculine vs. feminine is a pretty simple system:

Masculine/single rhyme

Rhymes one stressed syllable at the end of each word

cross boss, phone/intone, rely/imply, endured/assured, trees/bleeze (Scots: blaze)

Feminine/double rhyme

Rhymes stressed syllable + the unstressed syllable that follows it

patter/chatter, honey/funny, promoted/devoted, civility/humility, dominion/opinion, college / knowledge, mother/another, take her/make her, dishonor/upon her, continues/sinews. Mosaic rhyme: rhymes a polysyllabic word with two or more monosyllabic words: poet/know it, sinner/win her

Feminine/triple rhyme

Rhymes stressed syllable + two unstressed syllables that follow it. Often comic. Often mosaic. Often combines consonance &true rhyme.

apology/mythology, eminent/firmament, bilious/Pompilius …& the most famous rhyme in English: intellectual/hen-pecked you all

Polysyllabic 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, they can greatly alter a poem’s tone, increasing its aural subtlety – or its aural 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.

Stressed w/ unstressed

sing/loving, quintessence/sense, poet/content, awful/myself, sun/heaven, surrender/war, dead/repeated, under/stir, sun/legion, befall/medicinal


Both unstressed

honey/motley, loving/flying, hallowed/tiptoed, quiver/soever, leisure/treasure, creator/rather, daughter/porter,  


Stressed w/ promoted secondary

This is the most common type in this set. In this type and the first, where rhymed syllables are unequal in stress, consider the changing effects depending on which word comes last.


sees/mysteries, eye/harmony, note/petticoat, joy/poverty, chance/maintenance, hear/Mariner, spheres/barriers, glance / countenance, gyre/falconer, house/ceremonious, this/edifice, fall/equivocal, news/hypotenuse, innocent/meant. These can include historical rhymes, such as dies/mysteries.

Both promoted secondary

malignity/obliquity, extremity/certainty, identified/mollified,

rigamaroles/footsoles, surrendering/continuing, prentices/offices, Miniver/heavier, wretchedness/featureless, historical/ mathematical. Note some double rhymes.


Unstressed w/ promoted

honey/variety, serpent/diffident

Rhyme is also categorized by its position in the line and in the stanza.

Position in the line is the simplest, consisting of:

  •  End rhyme: both words fall at the ends of lines. These can be further divided into:
    • rhymes on end-stopped lines
    • rhymes on enjambed lines
    • The differences can be studied by comparing closed couplets to open couplets and contrasting Pope’s couplets to Robert Browning’s. Compare the placement of caesurae, the pace of the lines, and the relative aural weight of the rhymes.
  • Internal rhyme: one word falls mid-line, the other at the end; the first word most often precedes a medial caesura.
  • Cross rhyme: This term is used for other purposes, but we will take it to mean a pattern in which a word in the middle of line 1 rhymes with the last word in line 2, while the last word in  line 1 rhymes with a word in the middle of line 2.
  • Broken rhyme:  a 20th century innovation in which a word is hyphenated over a line-end to create a rhyme. See Moore & Cummings, e.g.

Position in the stanza involves effects of both pattern/scheme and interval.

  • Rhyme schemes are one of the defining features of stanzas – the other being meter. Certain patterns of position recur in different stanzaic contexts. These patterns may constitute stanzas of their own, or they may form the building blocks from which more complex stanzas are made. The most common are:
    • the couplet (rhymed aa)
    • alternating rhyme (abab)
    • triplets (aaa)
    • envelope (abba)

Rime royal, ottava rima, & the various sonnet forms are all made by combining these fundamental parts. Irregular odes, in which long stanzas are composed with irregular rhyme schemes and (occasionally) unrhymed lines, also use these parts to generate passages of aural and semantic unity. See the “Quick Reference” page on the course web site and entries in the Princeton re: individual stanza forms.

  • Interval or delay between rhymes is an important aspect of rhyme’s effect. For example:
    • couplets give immediate aural satisfaction
    • alternating rhyme provides slight delay but a relatively quick predictability
    • the ballad stanza (xaxa) runs its entire length before its singe rhyme completes itself , creating a queasy relationship between feelings of freedom and of fatedness; this may be why common measure substitutes an alternating rhyme
    • the envelope stanza combines effects of immediacy and delay
    • terza rima also combines effects of immediacy and extension
    • the differing sonnet structures provide very different experiences of immediacy & delay
    • couplets, triplets, and any highly repetitive scheme (such as the two envelope quatrains of a Petrarchan sonnet) run the danger of saturation, particularly if handled mechanically
    • very distant or irregular rhymes provide less rhythmic satisfaction than near or predictable rhymes and may in fact be unsettling rather than reassuring; they will at some point of attenuation cease to be perceived by most readers

  • Counterpoint rhyme: end rhyme in which the lines are of unequal metrical length. In other words, the rhyme scheme does not match the metrical scheme (as it does in common measure or the Burns stanza, for example) but is in counterpoint to it. This creates a particular tension in the dance of expectation and satisfaction, and thus it should not be surprising to find that it was prevalent among the so-called Metaphysical poets. See Donne: The Sun Rising, Woman’s Constancy, Love’s Growth, etc. Herbert: The Temper (I), Denial, etc. Contrast his “Man” where rhyme & meter match. M. Moore adapted this type of rhyme for her syllabic stanzas, e.g. “The Fish”.

 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.
  • Antithetical meanings: night/light, love/shove, forget/fret, death/breath, assay/decay,
  • Conceptual reinforcement: light/sight/white, near/dear, God/rod, presage/age, love/dove, love/prove, love/above, shame/blame, just/trust, rare/compare, wit/fit, age/heritage, fruitfulness/bless, earth/dearth,
  • Comedy or surprise: cheeks/reeks, trust/lust, gout/flout, I/alchemy, spies/epitomize, mother/smother, grace/loneliness, hearse/verse
When considering these relationships, distinguish between those that are conventional (including most of those I just listed) and those with no perceived relation other than their occurrence as rhymes in a single poem. It is in these cases that one sees most clearly the semantic power of rhyme, its ability to encode meaning in an instant of sound. In these moments we can see the aural dimension cross over into the conceptual dimension.

Poets whose rhymes make particular rich study include Pope, Blake, Byron, Dickinson, Hopkins, Yeats, Wilfred Owen, Randall Jarrell. Hopkins believed that the pleasure and power of rhyme was reduced if the rhymed words had any expected relationship to each other other than sound: the spark, for him, was in that flash of discovery of meaning via sound. Owen, a poet of WWI, who died in the trenches, wrote formally conservative verse in the Modernist era. Rhyme was one of the means by which he expressed his “modern” disillusion and bitterness. See “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est”. Sigfried Sassoon (Owen’s friend and poetic mentor, who survived the war) sometimes used rhyme in the same way—see “The Glory of Women” e.g.

 Consider whether rhyme is (always or in a unique instance) a device of expectation or a device of surprise. The range of possibility can be examined by comparing the semantically active rhyme of the poets I’ve listed above to the largely conventional rhymes in, say, Elizabethan lyrics or traditional ballads. Do the rhymes reduce the amount or density of information in the poem, or increase it? And what about poets who use surprising diction elsewhere in their lines but maintain their rhymes as momentary islands of grace and rest, or perhaps of tradition and predictability? There is no one simple answer to this question, though, not even within the work of a single poet. The tension between these two functions is one of rhyme’s mysteries and one of its powers.

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: Milton’s sonnets, in which patterns of assonance are laid over the rhyme scheme. (See “When I consider how my light is spent,” “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont, & “Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint”.)

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,” Hopkins’ heavy use of alliteration in rhymed poems, or Yeats’ “Among School Children.”

Compare these poems to those in which rhyme is scarce, or where most rhymes are partial and only a few strike full clear notes. Shakespeare’s couplets rounding off 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 Moore’s “The Steeple-Jack,” where each sestet is anchored by only a single pair of end-rhymes.