By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Rhyme is an important part of many poems, to the extent that, to many people, ‘rhyme’ is synonymous with ‘poetry’. ‘Does it rhyme?’ is the question many poets have been asked when they reveal to someone else that they write poetry.
It’s worth bearing in mind that poetry, however, is much older than rhyme: it’s likely that rhyme only became a more central part of poetry during the early Christian era, when hymns often contained rhyming units as an aid to memory and because the chiming of two different, yet related, words produced a pleasing effect.
And yet there’s plenty of poetry that doesn’t rhyme. Homer’s epic poems don’t rhyme. Much medieval alliterative poetry didn’t rhyme. Shakespearean blank verse, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Wordsworth’s great autobiographical poem The Prelude all do happily without rhyme, with Milton even writing a preface to a reissue of Paradise Lost explaining why he wished to liberate his epic poem from the shackles of rhyme.
And of course, modern and contemporary free verse avoids or rejects rhyme in favour of a looser musicality and other sound-effects (pararhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and so on).
So poems which do rhyme do so often for a good reason, just as poems which are rhymeless do without rhyme for a reason. Let’s take a look at some of the best poems which utilise rhyme, and explore why they might be doing so.
1. Anonymous, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’.
The King sits in Dunferline toun,
Drinkin the blude-reid wine
‘O whaur will A get a skeely skipper
Tae sail this new ship o mine?’
O up and spak an eldern knight,
Sat at the king’s richt knee;
‘Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That ever sailt the sea.’
So begins one of the best-known ballads to come from Scotland: the so-called ‘Border ballads’. In ballads, the rhyme scheme is usually abcb, so the even lines of each quatrain rhyme (e.g., ‘wine’ and ‘mine’), but the odd lines don’t (so ‘toun’ and ‘skipper’).
Ballads were originally written to be sung to accompanying music, and the to-and-fro of the rhyme, and the alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter, lend the lines a brisk, lively rhythm and pattern.
2. Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 99.
When far spent night persuades each mortal eye,
To whom nor art nor nature granteth light,
To lay his then mark-wanting shafts of sight,
Closed with their quivers, in sleep’s armoury;
With windows ope then most my mind doth lie …
This is a curious example of a rhyming poem from one of the earliest sonnet-writers in English. Sidney (1554-86) was a soldier, statesman, courtier, and poet: a true ‘Renaissance man’. His Astrophil and Stella (written in the early 1580s; published 1591) is one of the first sonnet sequences written in English.
This poem from the sequence is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, rhymed abba abba cdcdee. But look at how every single line ends with a word that plays on an ‘i’ (‘eye’?) sound: light, night, eye, blind, sight, and so on both semantically and sonically, we might say, summon the subject of the poem.
3. Alexander Pope, from An Essay on Criticism.
But still the worst with most regret commend,
For each ill author is as bad a friend
To what base ends, and by what abject ways,
Are mortals urged, through sacred lust of praise!
Ah, ne’er so dire a thirst of glory boast,
Nor in the critic let the man be lost
Good-nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human, to forgive, divine …
In the late seventeenth century, and for the next hundred years or so, the most common rhyming form in English poetry was probably the heroic couplet: rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter, as in the clipped, epigrammatic style of Alexander Pope’s 1711 poem here.
The last line of the section we’ve quoted above has become proverbial: Pope’s point is that a good critic forgives the faults of other writers, accepting that making mistakes is part of being human and we adopt the higher moral ground when we forgive people for natural human errors.
4. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from In Memoriam.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850), Tennyson’s long elegy for his dear friend who died suddenly in 1833, is written in rhyming quatrains (four-line stanzas) throughout. Each quatrain uses what is called ‘enclosed rhyme’ or ‘envelope rhyme’: that is, an abba pattern where the b rhymes are enclosed within the a rhymes.
Note here how Tennyson also joins the a and b rhymes through their shared long ‘a’ sound: ‘away’ and ‘day’ also chime with ‘again’ and ‘rain’, as if echoing the wailing cry of grief Tennyson himself is uttering when he revisits his friend’s home.
5. Christina Rossetti, ‘Remember’.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray …
Written when she was still a teenager, ‘Remember’ is one of Rossetti’s finest sonnets. Look at how she utilises the repeated abba abba rhymes of the ‘octave’ (the opening eight-line section) of the Petrarchan sonnet to suggest the toing-and-froing of grief and parting: the speaker talks about dying (‘gone away’) but rhymes this line with a reference to her desire to remain (‘half turn to go yet turning stay’).
6. Emily Dickinson, ‘I Heard a Fly Buzz’.
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 –
You’ll notice something different about rhyme in this Emily Dickinson poem. Dickinson (1830-86) is perhaps best-known for her distinctive use of dashes in her poems, but she also did interesting things with rhyme.
In this poem, one of her most famous, we find examples of what’s known as pararhyme – half-rhyme or ‘slant rhyme’, as it’s also known. So ‘Room’ and ‘Storm’ in the first stanza, and then ‘firm’ and ‘Room’ in the second, suggest a kinship between the ‘rhyming’ words (the shared final ‘m’ sound) but without constituting full rhyme (as ‘Room’ and, say, ‘doom’ would).
The effect is at once more natural than full rhyme, which can strike the reader as artificial, and stranger than full rhyme, because it suggests rhyme without following through with it.
7. Edward Thomas, ‘Tall Nettles’.
Tall nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now …
This short nature poem by Edward Thomas (1878-1917) does some fascinating things with rhyme. Although the poem apparently follows a simple abab pattern, note how the ‘ow’ sounds of ‘plough’ and ‘now’ in the first stanza flourish into the ‘flower’ and ‘shower’ in the second.
Observe also how the odd lines contain not full rhyme, but what’s known as ‘eye rhyme’: when words appear to rhyme when our eye looks at them on the page, but when we speak them out loud, they sound different. So ‘done’ and ‘stone’, and ‘most’ and ‘lost’, look as though they will chime perfectly but instead they utilise different vowel sounds.
This helps to reinforce the quiet surprise the poet feels at finding beauty in the dusty nettles growing over rusty old farm tools; full rhyme would perhaps be inappropriate for such a topic.
8. Claude McKay, ‘If We Must Die’.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
McKay (1889-1948) was a leading poet in the Harlem Renaissance just after the First World War. McKay wrote the sonnet ‘If We Must Die’ in response to mob attacks by white Americans upon African-American communities during an event that became known as the Red Summer.
Note in the above quatrain from the sonnet, which uses alternate rhyme (abab), ‘die’ not only rhymes with, but in a sense develops into ‘defy’, with ‘dead’ chiming semantically with ‘die’ as well as rhyming with ‘shed’.
9. Wilfred Owen, ‘Strange Meeting’.
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless …
After Dickinson, perhaps the first great proponent of pararhyme in modern poetry was the war poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who used it in a number of his poems about the First World War.
In this poem, in which the speaker dies and goes to hell, only to meet the man he killed, the rhyming couplets we found in Alexander Pope have given way to the uneasy alliance between words which we find in Owen’s ‘rhyming’ lines: ‘escaped’ and ‘scooped’, ‘groined’ and ‘groaned’, and so on. The First World War was not a heroic war, so no heroic couplets: instead, just the estranging and unsettling sensation created by pararhyme.
10. Sarah Howe, ‘Relativity’.
These are the opening lines of a contemporary poem which Howe write for Stephen Hawking; you can read the poem in full at the Paris Review by following the link above.
Note how the ‘rhymes’ here are subtler and less ‘perfect’ than in many earlier poems: ‘dark’ and ‘track’ utilise pararhyme, as do ‘know’ and ‘shadows’.