What is pararhyme? We all know what rhyme is: cat rhymes with mat, love with dove, and other pleasingly overused examples. But pararhyme is a little different, because, as its name suggests, it sits somewhere between full rhyme and no rhyme. The subtleties of pararhyme – sometimes known as slant rhyme or half-rhyme – require a little introduction and analysis.
Pararhyme is related to rhyme in that its effects are seen at the ends of lines of verse. It is also related to consonance, whereby the consonant sounds are repeated, but the vowel sounds are different. So, to distinguish between rhyme and pararhyme, killed and build would be rhyme, but killed and cold would be an example of pararhyme, as in the following lines from the end of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’:
‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.’
What is the effect of such pararhyme? For one thing, it’s worth bearing in mind that Wilfred Owen – probably the most famous and widely studied English poet of the First World War – used pararhyme in a number of his poems written during the war. Rhyme might be considered too heavy-handed a poetic instrument to bring to bear on the bewildering chaos of industrial warfare. Or, to put it another way, is there something perverse about offering perfect rhymes when writing about such a harrowing and unnerving subject? Pararhyme gestures towards the familiarity (and, we might say, comfort) of rhyme, whereby two things are perfectly brought together and click into place: live and give, word and bird, and so on. Pararhyme raises the possibility of such harmonious synergy while also creating, or perhaps revealing, the tension that lies underneath such easy acts of rhyming. An imperfect war requires a less than perfect use of rhyme. Owen’s end-words rub up against each other uneasily, warily. We’ve analysed Owen’s poem in more detail here, and offer some thoughts on the effects of pararhyme in another one of his famous poems here.
In one sense, then, pararhyme is the halfway house between no rhyme and full rhyme; but this risks simplifying its effects. In a poem like ‘Snowdrop’ by Ted Hughes, the poem masks its use of pararhyme carefully, so that it almost appears to be unrhymed (we’ve analysed this poem here). Indeed, words like month and metal share more in common with each other on the page than they do when spoken aloud, since the ear registers only the ‘m’ sounds, while the eye takes in the shared ‘t’ as well. Indeed, whereas Owen used a fuller kind of pararhyme involving all consonants in the ‘rhymed’ words – escaped and scooped, groined and groaned – Hughes, in poems such as ‘Snowdrop’ and ‘The Jaguar’ and ‘The Thought-Fox’, opts for a subtler and less obtrusive form of pararhyme, whereby only the final consonant sounds are shared (e.g. tight and heart rather than, say, height and heart).
The effect of this is partly to make the structure of the poem appear more natural (aptly, since nature is Ted Hughes’ great theme), but another underlying reason may be to create a fine and delicate link between the images used in the poem. Whereas Owen wanted to be more direct with his pararhyme to make a political and emotional point – about the pity and futility of war – Hughes’ observations of the natural world are designed to show how, for instance, the difficult flourishing of the snowdrop during harsh wintry weather relates to the still-hibernating mouse, or the fox in ‘The Thought-Fox’ relates to the human imagination. However, Owen was an important early influence on Hughes, and the natural world is often a theatre of war in Hughes’ poetry too – ‘nature red in tooth and claw’, as Tennyson famously put it.
It isn’t just twentieth-century poets who have made effective use of pararhyme, although it’s true that this device became more widespread in modern and contemporary poetry, partly as a result of the rise in popularity of free verse and a feeling that full, traditional rhymes were too trite or hackneyed to convey the complexity of contemporary life. But in the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson (1830-86) was a pioneer of pararhyme, as this poem demonstrates:
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
The even lines of each stanza show the range that pararhyme can encompass: not only consonance (Room and Storm, with the ‘m’ sounds in common) but also pararhyme that is not even consonance but instead relies merely on a shared final ‘vowel’ sound (be and Fly), a relation as light and delicate as the fly itself. Here, we are more likely to pick up on the pararhyme when we observe the pattern across the poem as a whole: after Room and Storm and then firm and Room (with the repetition of Room as an end-word across the two stanzas creating a cloying, claustrophobic atmosphere that is utterly in keeping with the death-bed setting), we are attuned to the poem’s pattern and are more likely to identify be and Fly as subtler examples of pararhyme. And, of course, Dickinson then turns up the dial in the final stanza, providing not pararhyme or half-rhyme but full rhyme: me and see. After such near misses in the previous stanza, the force of this full rhyme is greater than it would be if she had been using rhyme throughout. We offer further commentary on this poem here.
With Dickinson’s example in mind, it makes sense to think of rhyme as a spectrum, ranging from no rhyme at all (e.g. dog and cat) to full rhyme (mat and cat, or dog and fog) with a whole range of words falling between: it and cat, kit and cat, Kate and cat, or dig and dog, egg and dog, and so on. What pararhyme is good for, as this introduction to its features and effects has tried to show, is exploring the vast hinterland between perfection and disconnection, bringing things together which belong together but which should perhaps be brought together only cautiously, with the poet keeping in mind their differences as well as similarities.