Rhyme and Stanza



Rhyme not only chimes syllables, but also unites ideas and feelings, and phrases, clauses, and sentences. And, generally, rhymes please most when they aptly link elements that possess, in addition to sonic likeness, some element of grammatical or conceptual difference. In this respect, rhyme is like meter. It fuses similarity (of the sounds of the syllables and words involved) with dissimilarity (of the meanings of the syllables and words). It fuses predictability (reading verse in rhyme, we can anticipate its correspondences) with surprise (we can’t anticipate the semantic significance of the correspondences). And if we examine rhymed poems we particularly enjoy, we will often find that their rhymes, no less than their rhythms, exhibit an interesting variety of one sort or another.

Consider, for example, Robert Frost’s “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same.”

He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds’ song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.

Notice how Frost mixes and matches different kinds and shapes of words (e.g. the reared-stressed disyllabic “believe” with the monosyllabic “Eve,” and the monosyllabic “round” with the trisyllabic “oversound”) and mixes and matches different parts of speech (e.g. the adjective “soft” with the adverb “aloft,” and the pronoun “same” with the verb “came”). Notice as well how Frost, in joining “round” with “oversound,” fuses a sense of breadth with one of height, and how, in chiming the line ending in “crossed” with that ending in “lost,” he hints at the arresting thought that nothing better preserves a thing than a beneficial alteration to it. (It is also interesting that, though “crossed” and “lost” are both participial adjectives, they are formed by different suffixes—one by “-ed,” the other by “-t.”)

This is not to suggest that poets carefully calculate all their rhymes, any more they pre-plan all their rhythmical effects. Good poets learn how to use the tools of their trade and then concentrate on their subject matter. Paradoxically, intuition and instinct operate most freely in a poem’s technical aspects. And it’s usually only when things are not working out that a poet will turn his or her undivided attention to the nature of a cadence or the characteristics of a rhyme. At the same time, however, any poet will profit from developing tact and sensitivity with regard to rhyme.

Though good rhymes often feature an element of surprise, there are no intrinsically banal or unworkable rhymes. Critics sometimes say that poets ought to shun at all costs the more familiar pairings, citing in support of this position Pope’s phrase (Essay on Criticism, 349) about “the sure Returns of still expected Rhymes” and his related comment (350-53),

Where-e’er you find the cooling western breeze,
In the next line, it whispers through the trees;
If Crystal streams with pleasing murmurs creep,
The Reader’s threaten’d (not in vain) with sleep,

Yet a rhymer, especially one writing a longish poem, can hardly help introducing a commonplace match now and then. What causes, in poor verse, an impression of weak rhyming is not so much the banality of this or that rhyme, but rather, as Pope indicates, the presence of other insipidities, such as bromidic diction and clichéd figures of speech. If phrases, sentences, and thoughts correspond naturally, the rhymes that point them will please. Deployed sparingly, and given the context of fresh perception and lively language, “dull” rhymes can serve as effectively as their snazzier brethren.


Though rhymes can be arranged any number of ways—and though certain poets, such as George Herbert, Robert Herrick, and Thomas Hardy, are forever inventing novel or unusual arrangements—there are really only three basic patterns that the young reader or writer of verse need be aware of. (Even the outré sequences of Herbert, Herrick, and Hardy will often prove, on examination, to be variations and combinations of these basic patterns.)

The first pattern is couplet rhyme. When the couplet is “closed”—when it stands as a self-contained unit of thought as well as an arrangement of sound—it is an instrument of great epigrammatic wit or force. We see this quality throughout Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village, including the following passage (51-56):

Ill fares the land to hast’ning ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay;
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade,—
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied.

When it is “open,” and thought is allowed to range across line- and rhyme-endings, the couplet is capable of discursive urbanity, as in the lines in which John Donne, on shipboard on a becalmed sea, questions the restlessness that led him to undertake his perilous voyage (“The Calm,” 39-43; 51-56):

Whether a rotten state, and hope of gain,
Or to disuse me from the queasy pain
Of being belov’d, and loving, or the thirst
Of honor or fair death, out-pushed me first,
I lose my end . . .
* * * * * * *
What are we then? How little more, alas,
Is man now than before he was. He was
Nothing; for us, we are for nothing fit;
Chance, or our selves, still disproportion it.
We have no power, no will, no sense. I lie:
I should not then thus feel this misery.

Modern masters of the closed, epigrammatic couplet include J. V. Cunningham, X. J. Kennedy, and John Frederick Nims. Outstanding modern poets who have used the couplet rhyme in more discursive or lyrical poems include William Butler Yeats, Frost, Yvor Winters, Richard Wilbur, and Dick Davis.

The second basic rhyme pattern is cross rhyme, which entails rhymes that answer one another across intervening lines. This pattern is illustrated by Thomas Hardy’s “At Lulworth Cove a Century Back,” a poem which is dated “September 1920” and which pays tribute to John Keats. (The poem’s title refers to the place on the Dorset coast where Keats, mortally ill, stopped on his way to Italy and where he is said to have composed his final sonnet, “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art.”)

Had I but lived a hundred years ago
I might have gone, as I have gone this year,
By Warmwell Cross on to a Cove I know,
And Time have placed his finger on me there:

‘You see that man?’—I might have looked, and said,
‘O yes: I see him. One that boat has brought
Which dropped down Channel round Saint Alban’s Head.
So commonplace a youth calls not my thought.’

‘You see that man?’—Why yes; I told you; yes:
Of an idling town-sort; thin; hair brown in hue;
And as the evening light scants less and less
He looks up at a star, as many do.’

‘You see that man?’—’Nay, leave me!’ then I plead,
‘I have fifteen miles to vamp across the lea,
And it grows dark, and I am weary-kneed:
I have said a third time; yes, that man I see!’

Good. That man goes to Rome—to death, despair;
And no one notes him now but you and I:
A hundred years, and the world will follow him there,
And bend with reverence where his ashes lie.’

Cross rhyme produces song-like effects more readily than the other basic patterns, especially when it is used in poems in relatively short lines. But the tonal range of poems in cross rhyme is nearly as broad as that of poems in couplets, and we can indicate this range by citing titles of a just few well known cross-rhyming poems: Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” Andrew Marvell’s “Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” William Blake’s “The Tyger,” William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl,” Christina Rossetti’s “Up-Hill,” William Butler Yeats’s “Words,” Louise Bogan’s “The Romantic,” Robert Frost’s, “To Earthward,” Edward Thomas’s “Tall Nettles,” Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” Richard Wilbur’s “The Ride,” Edgar Bowers’s “The Stoic,” and Thom Gunn’s “Death’s Door.”

Envelope rhyme is the third and final basic pattern. Here a pair of outer rhymes embrace a pair of inner ones, as in Philip Larkin’s “The Trees”:

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said.
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Other excellent poems that use envelope rhyme include Ben Jonson’s “Elegy” (“Though beauty be the mark of praise”), Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam (probably the most famous envelope-rhymed poem in English), Christina Rossetti’s “A Pause of Thought,” Hardy’s “I Say I’ll Seek Her,” Yeats’s “When You Are Old,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad,” Winters’s “An October Nocturne,” and Wilbur’s “The Catch.”


A stanza may be defined as an arrangement of four or more lines (though some prosodists treat couplets and triplets as stanzas, too) in a pattern that specifies the number of lines in the group, their meter, and the sequence of their rhymes. Customarily, this pattern is established at the beginning of a poem and repeats thereafter for as long as the poem continues. The stanzas are, in other words, structurally identical. They feature “responsion,” answering and formally reflecting one another as they proceed.

Stanzas may involve lines of the same length, as is case in Hardy’s “At Lulworth Cove a Century Back,” which is in iambic pentameter, and Larkin’s “The Trees,” which consists of iambic tetrameters; or stanzas may feature arrangments of lines of different lengths. The most common stanza of the latter type is the “ballad stanza” which consists of a quatrain (i.e., a stanza of four lines) whose first and third lines are unrhyming iambic tetrameters and whose second and fourth lines are rhyming iambic trimeters. A famous practitioner of this stanza is Emily Dickinson, one of whose poems appears below:

My life closed twice before its close.
It yet remains to see
If immortality unveil
A third event to me.

So huge, so hopeless, to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

Readers and poets often describe the sequences or “schemes” of rhymes in stanzas by means of a kind of prosodic algebra. According to this procedure the rhyme scheme of Hardy’s poem on Keats is abab, whereas Larkin’s “The Trees” is abba and Dickinson’s is abcb (or, as some prefer to render it, xaya).

To illustrate a more complicated stanza, we can no better than cite Herrick’s lovely “To Daffodils.” This features a stanza of ten iambic lines—1, 3 and 9 being tetrameters, 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 being trimeters, and 5 and 7 being monometers—with a rhyme scheme of abcbddceae:

Fair daffodils, we weep to see iambic tetrameter
   You haste away so soon: iambic trimeter
As yet the early-rising sun iambic tetrameter
   Has not attained his noon. iambic trimeter
       Stay, stay, iambic monometer
   Until the hasting day iambic trimeter
       Has run iambic monometer
   But to the evensong; iambic trimeter
And, having prayed together, we iambic tetrameter
   Will go with you along. iambic trimeter
We have short time to stay, as you,
   We have as short a spring,
As quick a growth to meet decay,
   As you, or anything.
        We die,
   As your hours do, and dry
   Like to the summer’s rain,
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew
   Ne’er to be found again.

Stanzas serve two purposes. The first is musical. Stanzas enable poets to fashion verbal harmonies difficult to achieve in non-stanzaic verse. Stanzas permit them to play with patterns of rhymes and to mix together lines of different lengths. Consider, for example, the second and third stanzas of Frost’s “A Late Walk,” another poem in ballad stanza. (In this poem, the iambics are slightly loosened, with occasional extra unaccented syllables within the lines.)

And when I come to the garden ground,
The whir of sober birds
Up from the tangle of withered weeds
Is sadder than any words.

A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.

Frost could have written this passage in blank verse (i. e. unrhymed iambic pentameter) and said something like

And when I’m visiting the garden ground,
The birds that rise from tangled, withered weeds
Make sounds as sad as words could ever make.
A bare tree standing by the wall lets fall
A brown leaf (troubled by, it seems, my thought),
And it comes softly rattling to my feet.

But deprived of the rhymes and the varying line-lengths (and of course Frost’s inimitable phrasing), the verses lose their wistfully pointed quality.

The second key function of stanzas is indicated by the origin of the term. “Stanza” comes from an Italian word meaning “stopping place” or “room”; and just as architects divide buildings into rooms to help people organize various aspects of their lives, so poets partition poems stanzaically to help the reader navigate them. We can appreciate the organizational capacity of stanzas by examining the eighteenth poem of Housman’s Shropshire Lad:

Oh, when I was in love with you,
Then I was clean and brave,
And miles around the wonder grew
How well I did behave.

And now the fancy passes by,
And nothing will remain,
And miles around they’ll say that I
Am quite myself again.

Housman’s poem juxtaposes life with love and life without it. When we fall in love, we feel ennobled. When love fails us—or when we fail it—we lapse back into our customary ignobility. And the juxtaposition is pointed by Housman’s having divided the poem into two stanzas, each of which discusses one of the contrasting states. The stanzaic structure provides us with an immediate purchase on the thematic and emotional elements of the poem, and the rhymes drive home its rueful humor.

Just as poets can vary the disposition of their lines—end-stopping one here and enjambing one there—so as to sharpen and vivify their subject matter, so poets can manipulate stanzas for expressive purposes—now closing them up, now running them on—with a view to rendering as precisely as possible qualities of movement, image, or idea. Richard Wilbur’s “Hamlen Brook” provides excellent examples of ways in which stanzaic management can be lively and significant. The lines in this poem are iambic (with some anapestic substitutions) and are arranged in quatrains that rhyme abba and that follow a trimeter-tetrameter-pentameter-trimeter sequence.

At the alder-darkened brink
Where the stream slows to a lucid jet
I lean to the water, dinting its top with sweat,
And see, before I can drink,

A startled inchling trout
Of spotted near-transparency,
Trawling a shadow solider than he.
He swerves now, darting out

To where, in a flicked slew
Of sparks and glittering silt, he weaves
Through stream-bed rocks, disturbing foundered leaves,
And butts then out of view

Beneath a sliding glass
Crazed by the skimming of a brace
Of burnished dragon-flies across its face,
In which deep cloudlets pass

And a white precipice
Of mirrored birch-trees plunges down
Toward where the azures of the zenith drown.
How shall I drink all this?

Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.

Wilbur communicates the rich complexities and movement of the natural world not only by the line-enjambments (e. g., ” . . . he weaves/ Through stream-bed rocks . . . ” and ” . . . a white precipice/ Of mirrored birch-trees plunges down/Toward where . . “), but also by letting the stanzas overflow from one to another during that long sentence that runs from the eighth to nineteenth line. Just as, for instance, the minnow trout “darts out” from shallows along the bank, so the stanza describing this flight shoots away from and beyond its margins into the next stanza. And just as the minnow “butts out of view” at the end of the third stanza, so the stanza itself disappears into its successor. It would be wrong to say that the stanza replicates the fluid multiplicity of subject, since at every point Wilbur is sensitively guiding the verse; yet the stanzaic movement is vitally correlated with the subject, and we, as readers, feel the scene all the more strongly because of this correlation.

Stanzas, being groups of metrical lines, generally profit from modulation no less than metrical lines do. And, all other things being equal, it is generally beneficial to set different lengths or types of sentences into successive stanzas, just as it is to the poet’s advantage to keep laying different kinds of words and phrases across the metrical grid. Consider, in this regard, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Exit”:

For what we owe to other days,
Before we poisoned him with praise,
May we who shrank to find him weak
Remember that he cannot speak.

For envy that we may recall,
And for our faith before the fall,
May we who are alive be slow
To tell what we shall never know.

For penance he would not confess,
And for the fateful emptiness
Of early triumph undermined,
May we now venture to be kind.

Each stanza consists of a single sentence comprised of two parts—introductory prepositional phrases, followed by a main clause beginning, “May we.” However, after balancing the two parts of the sentence in the first two stanzas—allotting the prepositional phrases two lines and the main clause two lines—Robinson alters the procedure in the last stanza, giving the prepositional phrases three lines and the main clause only one. This shift nicely varies the rhythm of the poem and tilts it to its close. It also makes the final main clause—”May we now venture to be kind”—punchier and enforces the poet’s plea for kindness and charity.

Stanzas, then, enact the same timeless dialectic of art that meters and rhymes do, balancing likeness and unlikeness, coherence and diversity.