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A Fresh Look at the Use and Misuse Of Rhyme In Poetry

by Sidney Beck

Rhyme is not exclusive to poetry. Many prose novels use rhyme very effectively. Nor is rhyme an essential characteristic of poetry; nor is its emotional appeal capable of being assessed. So let us examine the use of rhyme in practical terms

Much mystical nonsense is mouthed about the use of rhyme in poetry. Most of the zealous support for the use of rhyme, and particularly end-rhyme, deals with nebulous notions of making the poem more emotionally satisfying or of intensifying the experience of the poet. This can often seem meaningless to those who are not already poetry enthusiasts. In fact, these notions may be regarded as one of the principal reasons why poems are simply unintelligible to non-lovers of poetry.   Rhyme zealotry is becoming less entrenched in English language poetry today, but zealots are often fearlessly loyal to the past -  what past?  End-rhyme has never been perceived as essential to poetry except maybe in certain limited time periods such as the Victorian.  Rhyme is not an essential component of poetry, although it might be common.  Beards In men are common but are not an essential feature of men.  No -  poetry is not synonymous with rhyme.  We need to look at the idea of rhyme in a much more down-to-earth and practical way in order to clear up the mystical mystery. End-rhyme in poetry is common, but why is it used?  

At best, end-rhyme is just one possible way of combining like and unlike sounds.   End-rhyme has not always been the norm.  Far from it.  Two of the founding fathers of western poetry,  Horace or Pindar, did not use end-rhyme, nor does it appear in earlier works like The Odessy or The Iliad. Of course, certain metrical patterns were used which gave rise to our iambic pentameter and also the blank verse so famed in the poetry of Milton and Shakespeare, and so widely present in modern poets such as Frost or W C Williams.

We know that people respond to repeated patterns. Other art forms use patterns as well….repeated movements in dance, repetition in architectural design.   But response is not the same as complete reliance.  The mistaken belief  “if it doesn’t rhyme it’s not a poem”             ( equally “if it rhymes it is a poem”)  is not unique to English language poetry.  The belief is widespread in France and Russia (where non-rhyming poetry is referred to as white poetry, meaning  “not poetry”).   In relation to 19th and 20th-century German poetry, interesting research has been done.  Proponents of aesthetics postulate that similarity, symmetry and other types of recursive patterns based on rhyme and metrical structure are fundamental features of beauty ( Grammer and Thornhill 1994 ).  Therefore rhyme and the metrical structure of poetry should impact the reader’s aesthetic liking and render poetry more emotionally involving.  However, the research has not been able to show how these two structural features, as well as their interplay with lexical content, impact the emotional processing of poetry.  In studies of the link between specific structural properties of poetry and the emotional responses to it, it was difficult/impossible to identify any clear interaction of the factors.

So we can’t prove that rhyme makes a poem more emotionally satisfying.  The rhyme zealots have no reason to say that rhyme is essential to poetry.  It is also noteworthy that rhyme zealotry is most often supported by inflated and confused claims, usually using rhythm to substitute for rhyme.        

Examples are legion of overinflated claims for the value of rhyme (beyond that it creates symmetry and pattern).  Two examples will suffice.  “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Longfellow uses rhyme scheme  AABBA which supposedly sounds like a horse’s gallop. This is nonsense. It is obviously the rhythm of the iambic tetrameter which suggests galloping,  but not the rhyme -

Listen, my children, and you shall hear /Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, /On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;/ Hardly a man is now alive /Who remembers that famous day and year.

 In  Spender’s “The Express” it is iambic pentameter which largely gives rhythm and some speed.  Spender uses shades of meter to draw attention to sections of his poem, for instance after "she" blows "her whistle screaming at the curves"  and continues to gain momentum and speed. Rhythm aside, it is the lexical meaning of the words ( open/speed/mystery), and not rhyme, that gives the idea of speed and freedom.  There is no regular rhyme scheme, though Spender does include two instances of rhyme  - 

Of death,  printed by gravestones in the cemetery. /Beyond the town, there lies the open country / Where gathering speed, she acquires mystery,

Clearly, not rhyme but rhythm gives movement to these two poems,  yet zealous critical writers frequently insist that it is the rhyme.  This is simply not so.  The movement of a story is often effectively transmitted by rhythm.  As if to cut away the ground even further beneath the feet of the poetry-equals-rhyme zealots, we need only look outside poetry.  This use of repeated phrases and words to achieve structure and pattern in poetry is also a feature of many prose writers. We may look at   Steinbeck, Hemingway, Savard, and  Hemon.

Steinbeck’s  The Pearl uses deliberately repeated phrases and ideas: “a rifle,  he will have a rifle”   ”the music of the pearl”  “the town”. Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea uses conscious repetition of  lions” “baseball”  “the great Di Maggio” “ I wish I had the boy”. Both of these prose novels are exploiting the mental processes of their heroes, using repetitive “poetical” rhyme as a tool.

 F A Savard’s  French-Canadian novel Menaud Maitre Draveur repeats several times    “we came in the past and shall remain”.  This recurring refrain is paying respect to a predecessor novel,  Hemon’s  Maria Chapdelaine,  which likewise uses repetitive phrases for effect:   (“Nous sommes venus il y a trois cents ans et nous sommes restés”).   Savard’s works have frequently been described as “both prose poems and novels” (1)

Having dismissed the “essential need” for rhyme, claimed to be exclusive to poetry, let us examine what rhyming in poetry is useful for in practical terms.   It is a simple observation that lines which rhyme have some close joint meaning.  Either they echo one another for support or they contradict one another for emphasis. More light is shed by Stephen Fry (2) - “rhyme, like alliteration, is thought to have originated in pre-literate times as a way of allowing the words of sung odes, lyrics, epics and sagas more easily to be memorized.” 

Fry observes that much of poetry is about “consonance” in the sense of correspondence: the likeness or congruity of one apparently disparate thing to another. Poetry is concerned with “consonance”, meaning the connections between things (3),  seeing the world in a grain of sand.  Poets are always looking for the wider “rhymes” in nature and experience. Thus, hope rhymes with spring, and death rhymes with winter, lips rhyme with roses, war with storms.

Let us examine further the idea of Fry’s “consonance” in some detail. In  William  Wordsworth’s I wandered lonely as a cloud ( IWLAAC ), the first lines are

1 I wandered lonely as a cloud, 2 That floats on high o'er vales and hills, 3 When all at once I saw a crowd, 4  A host, of golden daffodils;

Line 1 rhymes with line 3 because the loneliness of the cloud is contrasted strongly with the companionability of the crowd. So we can deduce that if ideas are clearly opposed, rhyme is appropriate. Line 2 rhymes with line 4, because floating on high may be a reminder of the heavenly host. So we can deduce that if ideas emphasize or echo each other, rhyme is appropriate.

It is not only  Romantics like Wordsworth who use rhyme in this way. In Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree  (100 years after Wordsworth), the middle stanza says

1  And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, 2  Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; 3  There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,4  And evening full of the linnet's wings.

Yeats rhymes lines 1 and 3, for they both speak of silent peace. He rhymes 2 and 4, for they both speak of the music in the island paradise, neatly balanced with the opposition of evening and morning.

In free verse, which often lacks strong end-rhyme, internal rhyme acts to link together “one apparently disparate thing to another”, as  Fry puts it.  Heaney’s  Digging ( 80 years after Yeats ) is about men cutting peat (turf). Here is no semblance of end-rhyme. But we can easily see the internal rhymes such as  milk-corked-drink  and  bottle-sloppily and nicking-digging. Even the contrast between “straightened up” and “digging down” is signaled by  internal rhyme of corked-nicking. And the emotional bond felt between the poet and his grandfather is deeply apparent  - without  overt end-rhyme

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

Of course poets don’t write their poems in this mechanistic way but it is evident in retrospect that there is a logic in their way of using rhyme. It’s not just trying to make one line sound like another just to show how cleverly words can be associated, or to make it “more emotional”. When poetic rhyme is talked of in these terms, it becomes an elitist topic, where no amateur poet may dare have a view.  Rhymes are useful to show many interesting details of poets and their poetry without any mysterious reference  to “emotional” intensity.

Through their rhymes, not only Heaney and  Yeats,  but Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others reveal their inner selves.   Clearly, the use of rhyme may indicate a lot more than the poet intended. Coleridge, in an enthusiastic mood after an opium-powered dream, wrote the first part of Kubla Khan which contains a vividly clear description of the pleasure dome. His first five lines use a markedly different rhythm from rest of poem, showing the beauty of the sacred river Alph. Coleridge’s writing was interrupted and he stopped writing.  When he eventually managed to get back to writing the second part, the dream had gone, never to be recaptured, and replaced by a wish to build like Kubla.  In his actual manuscripts, his handwriting changes noticeably: after the interruption it assumes a downslope showing his more negative mental state.

The use of rhymes shows us Coleridge’s different mentality between the two parts, something he never intended. In the first part, 16 of the 36 (mostly longish) lines deal with the physical environment of the cavern and he uses strong end-rhyme   In the second part only 3 out of 18 much shorter lines deal with physical environment and use weak end-rhyme. The irregular rhyme pattern shows the poet’s loss of enthusiasm replaced by wishful thinking. But equally the length of lines, rhythm changes, and lexical content are crucial in showing his mood changes.

It is instructive to examine the scheme of Wordsworth’s rhymes in  IWLAAC,  not for what it says, but for what it doesn’t say. End-rhyme can reveal a great deal more than Fry’s  “consonance”. Each stanza of IWLAAC is in the form of a sexain, a quatrain completed by a couplet (4).  What may this reveal? Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy loved countryside walks and kept a diary of her walks and what she saw, but she was no poet. Wordsworth read her diary one day and saw her account of the daffodils, and decided to write a poem. He never saw these flowers personally, he simply embellished on what his sister had seen. In other words, he imagined them, which was the gold standard for one of the leading Romantic poets of the day. This ‘family teamwork’ is unintentionally shown through the rhyme scheme.

If we read only the  quatrains in succession (ignoring the couplets), they give a pretty close idea of the poem embellished by Wordsworth. If we read only the couplets in succession, (ignoring the quatrains), they give a close approximation to Dorothy’s words as they appear in her diary. Wordsworth’s poetical quatrain-story is rich in end-rhyme, imagery, metaphor, assonance and slant rhyme, relating to clouds, stars, inward eye, and other things. Dorothy’s non-poetical couplet-story is lacking in images except for dancing.  Wordsworth never intended to show the poem’s progenitors through his rhymes, but he clearly does so.

Poets write because they intend to show deep meaning about some topic. Good poetry may have rhyming words or it may not. Bad poetry may also use rhyming or not. What the poet intends to show in his writing  may not be what he actually shows. His use of end-rhyme in particular may be interpreted wrongly by over-zealous champions of rhyme, bringing into disrepute the use of  rhyme generally. We need to look carefully at each rhyme to assess its true worth.
(Don't omit the  obvious use of repetitive  rhyme in children's stories like the Three Pigs.....huff and puff etc )


(1)   Encyclopedia  Britannica

(2)  Stephen Fry in his book, The Ode Less Travelled

(3)   This is not to be confused with the sound device consonance (e.g., the hard/k/ sound in “the ticking of the clock”).  Consonance of this type often accompanies comparable sound devices such as assonance and alliteration.

(4)   Wordsworth’s IWLAAC is written in sexains.  Any 6-line stanza is  a sexain. Many rhyming schemes are possible, and ABABCC  in iambic pentameter is known as a   “Venus  and  Adonis” stanza.    IWLAAC is in iambic tetrameter.