By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Slant rhyme, also known as half-rhyme or pararhyme, is a kind of halfway house between full rhyme and no rhyme. So for instance, if we call cat and mat full rhyme, and cat and book are not rhymes of any kind, what can we call cat and coat, or cat and kite?
We can categorise such pairings as slant rhyme, or half-rhyme or pararhyme. And such slant rhymes can be put to a wide range of uses in poetry. Indeed, poets as varied as Emily Dickinson, Wilfred Owen, and Ted Hughes have all used slant rhymes in their work, as the following examples demonstrate. But each of them employs slant rhyme for subtly different reasons.
Below are ten examples of slant rhyme from some of the best poets writing in the English language.
1. Emily Dickinson, ‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass’.
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him – did you not
His notice sudden is –
The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted shaft is seen –
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on …
Emily Dickinson (1830-86) was a pioneer of slant rhyme, and her 1,700+ poems often use a form of half-rhyme in lieu of full rhyme.
In this poem, Dickinson describes a snake, seen from a child’s-eye view. The snake appears and disappears suddenly, and is apt to be mistaken for other things (e.g. a whip), and eludes our understanding. We get slant rhymes such as ‘rides’ and ‘is’ and ‘sun’ and ‘on’, which unsettle and wrongfoot us much as the snake’s appearance disturbs the poem’s speaker …
2. Wilfred Owen, ‘Futility’.
Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know …
One of the most distinctive features of Wilfred Owen’s war poems, written during the First World War, is his frequent use of slant rhyme, as in ‘Futility’, included here. The poem focuses on the body of a fallen soldier, with the speaker’s muted sense of ‘futility’ over the senseless war conveyed through the off-rhymes of ‘sun’ and ‘unsown’, ‘once’ and ‘France’, and so on.
3. W. H. Auden, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’.
This poem, written in early 1939 in the wake of Yeats’s death, is in three parts, and can be viewed as a poem about poetry in general as well as an elegy specifically for Yeats.
The second part of the poem appears unrhymed, but uses slant rhyme effectively to hint at poetry’s powerlessness to change the world in any concrete way: it is here that we find Auden’s oft-repeated statement that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’.
4. Amy Clampitt, ‘The Cormorant in Its Element’.
The poetry of Amy Clampitt (1920-94), like the poetry of earlier twentieth-century poets such as the modernist H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) is nature poetry, often with an oceanic setting.
‘The Cormorant in Its Element’ is a great introduction to Clampitt’s work if you haven’t read her before: it’s a sonnet, albeit a technically innovative and interesting one, which uses slant rhyme as Clampitt describes the graceful movement of the unromantic ‘pot-bellied’ bird, the cormorant.
5. Keith Douglas, ‘Vergissmeinnicht’.
But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.
For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.
If Wilfred Owen was the outstanding poet of the First World War, Keith Douglas (1920-44) is arguably the greatest poet of the Second. Like Owen, he was fond of using slant rhyme, perhaps nowhere more effectively than in what is probably his most famous poem, ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ (German for ‘forget me not’).
6. Ted Hughes, ‘Snowdrop’.
This is a short 1960 poem by Ted Hughes (1930-98), a poet who valued and championed Keith Douglas, and perhaps the greatest nature poet writing in English during the entire twentieth century. It describes the snowdrop’s ability to break through the tough frosted earth while winter still reigns and the mouse is still hibernating.
At first glance, ‘Snowdrop’ looks unrhymed, so delicately does Hughes unite his short lines of verse together into couplets: ‘tight’ and ‘heart’, ‘brass’ and ‘darkness’, ‘ends’ and minds’, and ‘month’ and ‘metal’.
7. Sylvia Plath, ‘Ariel’.
Like Ted Hughes, Plath liked to keep the shadow of a form, the ghost of a rhyme or structure, in the background to her poetry. And ‘Ariel’ is a good example of this, as ‘darkness’ plays off ‘distances’, with both merging with ‘lioness’, while ‘grow’ paves the way for ‘furrow’, ‘sister to’ picks up on ‘blue’, ‘arc’ rhymes with ‘dark’, and so on.
The poem describes, in unrhymed tercets or three-line stanzas (though with a fair bit of consonance, assonance, and pararhyme), Plath’s dawn ride on the horse, Ariel, across the countryside.
8. Audre Lorde, ‘Coal’.
‘Coal’ is a 1968 poem by the African-American poet Audre Lorde (1934-92): one of her most frequently anthologised, the poem is about the rage the poet feels when, for instance, she sees white people’s attitudes to black Americans.
‘Coal’ is ‘total black’ but if you put it under enough pressure, it can produce diamonds; Lorde herself is ‘Black’, she tells us, because she comes from ‘the earth’s inside’. We discuss the poem in more detail here.
The slant rhymes in this poem – ‘spoken’ and ‘open’, ‘I’ and ‘inside’, ‘throat’ and ‘apart’, and so on – are delicate, so subtle as almost to evade detection, but they allow Lorde to bring together the various aspects of her central image, but to do so in a natural-sounding way.
9. Gillian Clarke, ‘Pheidippedes’ Daughter’.
Written for her own daughter Catrin, this touching poem from Clarke’s 2012 collection Ice weaves in Welsh myth and the classical story of the man who supposedly ran from the Battle of Marathon to tell the people of Athens that they had won the battle.
Clarke uses pararhyme delicately in this quatrain poem, before the half-rhymes harden into a pair of fuller rhymes in the poem’s closing stanza.
10. Amanda Gorman, ‘In This Place (An American Lyric)’.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best examples of slant rhyme with a contemporary example: Amanda Gorman (born 1998) wrote this poem for the inaugural reading of the US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the Library of Congress. The poem is an example of what is known as an occasional poem, or a poem written for a specific occasion.
This poem is written in free verse, because it is broadly lacking in any regular rhyme scheme, metre, or line/stanza length. However, at some points, Gorman utilises rhyme, notably in the stanza beginning, ‘Tyrants fear the poet.’ She also utilises half-rhyme or pararhyme at several points (Watts/thoughts, higher/Heyer) and occasional rhyme elsewhere.