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by Sidney Beck


The use of end rhyme in poetry is common, but why is it used? If we examine the web sites dealing with rhyme and its uses, most of the so-called explanations for the use of end rhyme deal with nebulous notions of making the poem more emotional or of intensifying the experience of the poet. This seems meaningless to anyone who is not already an enthusiastic poetry lover. In fact it may be regarded as one of the principal reasons why poems are simply unintelligible to most ordinary people.

According to Stephen Fry in his book The Ode Less Travelled, “. . . . . .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. Whatever its origin, the expectation it sets up in the mind seems deeply embedded in us. 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 the connections between things, 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” . When used well, rhyme can reify meaning, it can embody in sound and sight the connections that poets try to make with their wider images and ideas.. . . . . . “

Let me examine the idea of Fry’s “consonance” in some detail. Take as an example Wordsworth’s poem I wanderd lonely as a cloud ( often known erroneously as The daffodils), in which 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. A simple example is “my dog is black, he’ll sometimes bite” can rhyme successfully with ‘my cat is small and cute and white”.

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 emphasise or echo each other, rhyme is appropriate. A simple illustration is “my dog is fast and he’ll sometimes bite” and “he chases rabbits every night”.

It is not only the older poets such as the Romantics who use rhyme in this way. Look for example at W B Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree , written 100 years after Wordsworth. The middle stanza is clear in its intent. Yeats rhymes 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

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.

It is interesting and instructive to analyse the rest of Wordsworth’s rhymes in his poem. But end rhyme can reveal a great deal more than “consonance”. Each stanza of his poem is in the form of a quatrain completed by a couplet. What may this reveal? Wordsworth lived with his unmarried sister Dorothy. Dorothy loved long walks in the countryside and kept a diary of her walks and what she saw, but she was no poet. Wordsworth read her diary one day and saw the story 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, an entirely acceptable approach for one of the leading Romantic poets of the day.

The quatrains, if read together without the couplets, give a pretty close idea of the poem embellished by Wordsworth. The couplets , read together without the quatrains, give a close approximation to Dorothy’s diary words. It is no accident that the word “daffodils” appears once at the beginning of the quatrains, and once at the end of the couplets, affording a symmetry to the poem which helps tie together the two stories. Wordsworth’s quatrain story is rich in end rhyme, imagery, metaphor, assonance and slant rhyme, relating to clouds, stars, inward eye, and other things. Dorothy’s story Is lacking in images except for dancing.

Sometimes, therefore, a rhyme scheme can indicate a lot more than what the poet intended. Kubla Khan is an excellent example. In this well-known poem, Coleridge wrote the first stanza in an opium-powered dream. The dream was interrupted and he stopped writing, and when he eventually managed to get back to writing the second stanza, the dream had gone, never to be recaptured. A glance at the poem’s shape and its rhymes shows the difference between the two stanzas.

In free verse, which often lacks strong end rhyme , it is the internal rhyme which acts to link together “one apparently disparate thing to another”, as Stephen Fry puts it. Here is a middle stanza from the very modern poem of S Heaney called Digging, in which he describes men cutting peat ( or turf ) in the boglands of Ireland. 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/digging. Even the contrast between “straightened up” and “digging down” is linked with corked/nicking.

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 this 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. People may have different interpretations of these and all poems, and their rhyming systems. As a schoolteacher, I always like to try to simplify things so that they are understandable to everyone.

(end of article)


Book: Shattered Sighs