Full Rhyme: Monosyllabic; Disyllabic; Trisyllabic
Partial Rhyme: Consonantal; Open-vowel; Assonantal; Eye Rhyme; Rich
Rhyme; Apocopated Rhyme; Off-the-Beat Rhyme; Wrenched Rhyme; Frame or
I. General Observations About Rhyme
Like meter, rhyme seems to appeal to a basic human capacity for play and fun. Just as people enjoy and respond to rhythmical patterns, so they delight in verbal correspondences, as anyone can testify who has heard children improvising rhymes while skipping a rope or has listened to a fine rap artist spinning out and weaving together intricate arrangements of rhyme. It is significant that though many leading poets of the 20th century turned away from rhyme, composers of popular songs and for the musical theater continued to practice and develop the device, and to enchant and move audiences by means of it. The recent and richly merited success of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton reflects, among other things, the enduring attractions of rhyme,
Also like meter, rhyme presents a lively fusion of similarity and dissimilarity. Just as meter reconciles fixed measure with variable speech rhythm, so rhyme links syllables and words that sound alike even as their meanings differ. Moreover, rhyme entails, as does meter, both predictability and surprise. Reading metered verse, we can anticipate the recurrence of a fundamental pattern, but cannot foresee the diverse ways in which the pattern will be realized. Likewise, reading a rhymed poem, we can foresee that a word or syllable at the end of one line will be answered by a word or syllable at the end of another, but we can’t usually or always tell what the answering word or syllable will be or what significance the correspondence will produce.
We can illustrate these points by citing two lines from a rhyming poem by Robert Frost entitled “Evening in a Sugar Orchard.” The poem describes sparks rising from the chimney of the sugar house and tangling in the maple boughs above it. (Because the poem is set in Vermont in March, the weather is cold and the boughs are leafless, so there’s no fire hazard.) The poet says of the sparks that, rather than trying to rival the brilliance of the moon,
They were content to figure in the trees
As Leo, Orion, and the Pleiades.
When we read the first of these lines, we can expect that Frost will, in a line to come, answer “trees” with another word ending with a long-e-plus-z sound. But the specific word comes as a surprise. In this case, the surprise is probably a little more than it is normally since “Pleiades” is not as common a word as other possible rhyming words, such as “ease,” “freeze,” or “degrees.” But the effect of the rhyme—the pleasing little jolt that we take in stride as we read on through the poem—is such as we find in any well-rhymed poem.
Frost’s lines also demonstrate that rhyme matches not only the sounds of words or syllables but also phrases, clauses, sentences, and ideas; and because the words that rhyme in a poem have more sonic prominence than the ones that don’t, rhymes can help poets heighten or reinforce conceptual meaning. “Evening in the Sugar Orchard” draws connections between the near and the far—between the spark-tangling boughs immediately above the poet and the constellations that lie hundreds of light years beyond them. That “trees” and “Pleiades” resemble each other in sound enhances the metaphysical correlation that Frost is drawing.
Such considerations help explain a paradox about rhyme. Even when we read a rhymed poem we’ve long known and loved, its rhymes produce a freshly engaging pulse of interest. Part of the reason may be that we appreciate the way the rhymes guide and shade the poem’s description, narrative, or argument. Part of the reason may be that we enjoy the ongoing interplay of similarity and difference that the rhymes involve. But the effect also results because the rhymes remind us, as metaphors do, that “This resembles that.” Each time we read the poem, we rediscover the connections its rhymes suggest.
I don’t mean to imply here that poets painstakingly calculate all their rhymes, embedding in each correspondence intellectual overtones and subtleties of meaning. Good poets learn how to use the tools of their trade and then concentrate on their subject matter. Moreover, ostentatiously ingenious rhyming will likely distract and irritate readers rather than engaging them. Like other devices of prosody and rhetoric, rhyme is a means to an end. It serves sense. It contributes to a more spirited, more focused, and more memorable treatment of subject matter. Usually, it’s only when poems stall that accomplished poets will, to clarify what’s wrong and get things back on track, turn their undivided attention to the nature of a cadence or the characteristics of a rhyme.
Also, 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 the more familiar pairings, citing in support of this position Alexander 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 thro’ the Trees;
If Crystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The reader’s threaten’d (not in vain) with Sleep.
To be sure, good poets will aim to use rhyme as freshly as possible; yet a rhymer, especially one writing a longish poem, can hardly help introducing a commonplace match now and then. When we feel that poets are rhyming tritely, it is often not the fault of the rhymes specifically but the result, as Pope indicates, of other or additional qualities of bad writing, including 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 vigorous language and lively perception, “dull” rhymes can serve as effectively as their snazzier brethren.
Languages naturally produce rhymes. As capacious as their vocabularies may be, all their words are comprised of a relatively small number of phonemes—basic distinctive speech sounds. Take English. Estimates of the size of our lexicon vary widely, due to such questions as whether to count inflected forms of words; whether compounds should be counted independently of the elements they’re made of; whether slang and jargon should be included; and whether and when scientific, technical, or foreign terms useful to specialized professions may be considered to have become properly a part of our language. But most authorities agree that English has at least a million words. Yet according to Received (British) Pronunciation, all these words are constructed from a mere 44 phonemes: 24 consonant sounds and 20 vowel sounds. And this figure is a little lower for General American English on account of our distinguishing several fewer vowel sounds. (For comparison, Japanese is at the low end of the phonemes scale with 22—17 consonants and five vowels—and Lithuanian is at the high end with 57—12 vowels and 45 consonants.) Inevitably, the sounds of words overlap.
The extent to which these similarities will lead to structural rhyming in poetry—that is, the linking of the terminal sounds of verse lines—depends on many factors, and it is beyond my competence to summarize them fully. (I recommend Michael Ferber’s Poetry and Language: The Linguistics of Verse [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2019] to those who wish to explore such matters more deeply.) But generally speaking, languages that favor rhyme are likely to have at least some “analytic” or “isolating” characteristics. They are likely, that is, to feature content words (verbs, nouns, adjectives, most adverbs) that can stand meaningfully in relation to one another without flexional elements. By the same token, such languages may communicate sense, at least to some extent, by word order (e.g., subject-verb-object); and connective aid may be provided by functional words like conjunctions, articles and prepositions. If a fair number of the content words are monosyllabic, that could help, too. Conditions such as these will allow poets a relatively wide range of possibilities for matching, simply and securely, syllables of significant sonic or grammatical weight.
Less favorable to rhyme are highly “synthetic” languages—languages that involve lots of compounding and/or the use of affixes, especially flexional suffixes, to indicate grammatical relationships. To achieve full rhyme in these languages, poets may have to rhyme both the stems of words and whatever flexional elements attach to the stems. The correspondence of flexional endings alone—what Aristotle calls homoeoteleuton in his Rhetoric—is not rhyme as we normally think of it. Its occurrence is generally incidental, and its significance is usually weak, both phonetically and semantically. This can be seen in English, which is moderately analytic but which still employs a number of terminal affixes (e. g., “-ed,” “-er,” “-est,” “-ing,” “-s,” and “-es”) and other suffixes (e. g., “-ful,” “-ment,” “-ly.”). We don’t consider as rhymes, that is, such correspondences as “waited” and “hoarded”; “cooler“ and “fairer”; “dreadful” and “careful”; “dearest” and “truest”; “hopefully” and “sadly”; “embarrassing” and “napping”; “discernment” and “commitment”; “bewitches” and “roses”; and so on.
However, rhyme-discouraging elements in synthetic languages may be mitigated or cancelled by other factors. If, for example, a synthetic language regularly sets accent, pitch, or length on the final syllable of polysyllabic words and phrases—even in instances when the final syllable is flexional—that language may well support rhyme. Such is the case with French, which is moderately synthetic but which places accent at the ends of words and phrases and welcomes rhyme.
We can better appreciate this topic by considering the poetries of the great classical literary traditions. That of China rhymes from its very beginnings, circa 1000 BCE. (The poems in the foundational Books of Songs anthology date from the 11th to the 8th century BCE.) Chinese is essentially analytic, with each character equaling a syllable. In contrast, verse in ancient Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin—languages that entail complex declensions and conjugations—employ rhyme only ornamentally and not as a structural device. It is telling that when rhyme establishes itself English poetry between the twelfth and fouteenth centuries, it does so not only because of the infusion of Norman French into English—and because of the rhyming models of French and Italian verse—but also because the flexional system of Old English breaks down, making rhyme easier and more naturally harmonious.
This last comment is a reminder that, though the internal conditions of a language will critically affect whether its poetry rhymes, external influences may also play a role in the matter. The popularity and prestige of French verse in the 13th and 14th centuries in England encouraged English poets to embrace rhyme. By the same token, the rhyming forms and conventions of medieval Arabic verse had a seminal influence on the development of rhyme in Persian poetry.
As has been suggested, morphology—the processes and elements by which words are formed—also affects the degree and kind of rhyming that may prevail in the poetry of a language. For example, Italian words end in a relatively few number of ways, so a skillful poet like Dante or Ludovico Ariosto can maintain, with artful ease and for thousands of lines, the rhyming triplets required by terza rima (aba bcb cdc, etc.) or ottava rima (abababcc). Likewise, Italian poets can come up with, without too much strain on their verbal inventiveness, the two groups of rhyme quartets demanded by the octave of the Petrarchan sonnet (abbaabba).
English, too, is rich in rhymes, but in a different way from Italian or French. English derives from many sources—among them, Celtic, Latin, Germanic, and Romanic—and English words end in many ways. Hence, poetic forms that require English-language poets to produce rhymes in groups of three or more can prove challenging. Yet this same condition contributes to their being in English a wealth and variety of rhyme pairs, notwithstanding the fact that some words—“wisdom” being the best known—don’t rhyme securely with any others, and other words—including “breath” and “reason”—rhyme with only a few others. Further, because accent is so pronounced in English, poets can securely rhyme not only two syllables with primary stress:
Still, nothing changes as her perfect feet
Click down the walk that issues in the street
Richard Wilbur, “Transit,” 9-10
but also a syllable with primary stress and one with secondary or tertiary stress:
Where you may lie as chaste in bed
As pearls together billeted.
Andrew Marvell, “Upon Appleton House,”189-90
Why do we deck, why do we dress
For such a short-lived happiness?
Aphra Behn, “To Alexis, in Answer to His Poem Against Fruition,” 17-18
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Gerard Manley Hopkins, “No worst, there is none” 2-3
He’d be there at the door, smiling but gaunt,
To set out for the German restaurant.
Thom Gunn, “The J Car,” 9-10
As these examples illustrate, the primarily stressed syllable or word will, generally, set up the rhyme with the syllable bearing less stress. But sometimes the syllable with secondary or tertiary stress will come first:
I screamed and—lo!—Infinity
Came down and settled over me.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Renascence,” 29-30
What did she care? “You don’t appreciate
The things I do for you, young man.” “Yeah. Great.”
Wendy Cope, “A Teacher’s Tale,” 319-320
And on occasion, poets will rhyme two syllables that have only secondary or tertiary stress:
Dear poet, here, too late, is sympathy,
Late friendship from a helpless enemy
Dick Davis, “To ’Eshqi,” 67-68
The preceding remarks need qualification. Though the final syllable of, for instance, “appreciate” will have secondary stress when spoken in isolation and with its dictionary pronunciation—and though the final syllable of “Comforting” will take tertiary stress—the syllables may assume a little more stress by being set at the ends of metrical lines and by being rhymed. And in reading the lines themselves, different readers may give different shadings of stress to the syllables. Analysis in such matters can’t be—and shouldn’t try to be—exactly or universally descriptive.
Moreover, the prominence of accent in our language is such that some poets, most famously John Milton, have argued that meter alone is sufficient to determine the English verse line and that rhyme is an unnecessary ornament. Whatever one’s opinion is on this matter, it is interesting that Modern English developed, as Old English had earlier, a vital tradition of unrhymed metered verse. The Old and Modern unrhymed traditions differ. The chief measure of the Old English poetry is an accentual-alliterative line that features, generally, four stresses, a medial caesura, and falling rhythm. The lines usually begin with a strong syllable and with a rhythm that sounds, to our ears, trochaic or dactylic. In contrast, the chief unrhymed measure of Modern English verse is “blank verse”—unrhymed iambic pentameter. Its rhythm rises, fluctuating between lighter and weightier syllables; and far from having a fixed caesura, the pentameter invites poets to shift the grammatical pauses, for the sake of rhythmical liveliness, to various places within the line.
Beowulf (circa the 8th century?) exemplifies, and is the longest extant work of, Old English poetry. Modern English blank verse begins with Henry Howard’s translation into English, around 1540, of the second and fourth books of Virgil’s Aeneid. Thereafter, the line becomes go-to medium for the great Elizabethan and Jacobian dramatists and, with Milton’s Paradise Lost, it becomes the measure of English epic. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, it is adopted on occasion for middle-length and relatively short poems (e. g., William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and S. T. Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”). Subsequent verse that illustrates this development includes Robert Browning’s “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church,” Alfred Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears,” E. A. Robinson’s “Isaac and Archibald,” most of the poems in Robert Frost’s North of Boston, and Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning.” (In his Blank Verse: A Guide to Its History and Use, Robert Shaw provides an excellent survey of the origins and development of the medium.)
One benefit that English-language poets have enjoyed since the sixteenth century is that they’ve had the choice of writing rhymed and/or unrhymed verse. This contrasts with the situation in, for instance, French and Persian, in which traditional verse is all rhymed, or in classical Latin and Japanese, in which verse is generally unrhymed. Every poetry has its distinctive richness. I don’t mean to suggest that English is more happily constituted, as regards verse, than other languages. But its dual rhyming and unrhyming condition is worth noting.
Full rhyme matches the final metrically accented syllables of two or more lines. The central vowels (or diphthongs) of the syllables involved correspond, as do whatever consonants and/or hypermetrical elements may follow. However, the sounds with which the rhyming syllables begin differ.
Full rhyme in English-language verse is most commonly monosyllabic, as in the three epigrams below. They illustrate, respectively, the three basic ways in which syllables rhyme fully. The syllables feature either (1) identical vowels preceded by different consonants, (2) identical vowels followed by the same consonants but preceded by different consonants, or (3) identical vowels followed by the same consonants, but only one of which is preceded by a consonant.
Life flows . . .
Life flows to death as rivers to the sea,
And life is fresh and death is salt to me.
J. V. Cunningham (1911 - 1985)
To The Reader
Pray thee, take care, that tak'st my book in hand,
To read it well: that is, to understand.
Ben Jonson (1572/73 - 1638)
Solitary Observation Brought Back from a Sojourn in Hell
At midnight tears
Run into your ears.
Louise Bogan (1897 – 1970)
As the rhyme in the first of these examples (sea/me) illustrates, rhyme results from a correspondence of sound, and this correspondence is not inevitably accompanied by a correspondence in spelling. English orthography is notoriously thorny and inconsistent. Different letters may represent the same sound, as with the long a-plus-n in “train,” “reign,” and “pane,” or the long i in “spry,” “I,” ”thigh” “buy,” and “lie. ” And the same letters may represent different sounds, as with the ough in “though,” “tough," “through," and "slough" (as in "slough of despond"). With a couple of exceptions involving partial rhyme that we’ll examine later, when I speak of rhyme, I’m referring to like-sounding syllables or words and not necessarily syllables or words that are spelled the same way.
The rhymes in the epigrams above are often called “masculine,” in contrast to the next species of full rhymes. Less common than monosyllabic rhymes but by no means rare, these rhymes are disyllabic, with the second syllable being lightly stressed and “extrametrical” or “hypermetrical”—meaning that it lies “outside” or “beyond” the boundary of the meter. Such rhymes are sometimes called “feminine” and are exemplified in the following epigrams:
Summary of Lord Lyttelton’s Advice to a Lady
Be plain in dress and sober in your diet;
In short, my deary, kiss me, and be quiet.
Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 - 1762)
On the Distribution of Honors in Literature
The grandest writer of late ages
Who wrapt Rome up in golden pages,
Whom scarcely Livius equal'd, Gibbon,
Died without star or cross or ribbon.
Walter Savage Landor (1775 – 1864)
The term “feminine rhyme” derives from French verse. In French, many feminine nouns end in an e (robe, flamme, vie, intelligence, etc.), and many others are formed by adding an e or some other e-ending suffix to their masculine counterparts (marchand/ marchande, gamin/gamine, ouvier/ouvière, ambassadeur/ambassadrice, etc.). We also add e to most adjectives when they’re attached to feminine nouns, and if the indefinite article precedes the adjective and noun, we use une instead of un. For instance, because the French word for “victory” is feminine and the word for “speech” is masculine, we write une grande victoire as opposed un grand discours.
In French verse, a hyper-metrical syllable is permitted at the end of the line. Since such syllables generally involve word-ending e’s (or es or ent), rhymes with hyper-metrical syllables came to be called “feminine” while rhymes that matched accented syllables with no hypermetrical element came to be called “masculine.” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) states that these terms were already current in discussions of French verse by the early fifteenth century. Even though the word-ending e eventually became mute in most regions of France, final e’s continued to count as sounded in French poetry. And thanks the practice of Pléiade poets (16th century) and the criticism of Francois de Malherbe (1555 – 1628), it became a rule of French versification that feminine and masculine rhymes should alternate. For the most part, this convention continues up into the early twentieth century and into the work of modern masters of metered French verse like Paul Valéry.
Though English does not generally distinguish nouns as feminine or masculine, and though our inflectional system differs from French, poets and readers in our language have adopted the French terminology. We call a light extrametrical syllable a “feminine ending,” and when such syllables participate in a rhyme, we describe the rhyme as “feminine.”
Further, English poets have sometimes alluded to gender when using feminine rhymes. For example, Montagu’s irritation at Lord Lyttleton’s patronizing advice to women assumes added punch on account of her framing it with feminine rhymes. Another instance of gender-allusive rhyme is Shakespeare sonnet 20 (“A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted”). This poem praises the beauty and gentleness of a young man; and Shakespeare, to reinforce his thesis that the young man has characteristics and virtues often associated with women, composes the sonnet in feminine rhymes exclusively.
In addition, English-language poets sometimes adopt, for this or that particular poem, the French practice of alternating between rhyme types. Oliver Goldsmith (1728 – 1774), for example, does this in Olivia’s song from The Vicar of Wakefield:
When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?
The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
And give repentance to her lover,
And wring his bosom—is to die.
In “Daughter of Eve,” Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894) reverses this sequence of rhyme types, setting up in her stanzas the masculine ones first and the feminine ones second:
A fool I was to sleep at noon,
And wake when night is chilly
Beneath the comfortless cold moon;
A fool to pluck my rose too soon,
A fool to snap my lily.
My garden-plot I have not kept;
Faded and all-forsaken,
I weep as I have never wept:
Oh it was summer when I slept,
It’s winter now I waken.
Talk what you please of future Spring
And sun-warmed sweet tomorrow:—
Stripped bare of hope and everything,
No more to laugh, no more to sing,
I sit alone with sorrow.
Poets writing in “common meter” (cross-rhyming quatrains whose odd lines are tetrameters and whose even ones are trimeters) often alternate between feminine and masculine rhyme, as in “For a Lady I Know” by Countee Cullen (1903 – 1946):
She even thinks that up in heaven
Her class lies late and snores
While poor black cherubs rise at seven
To do celestial chores.
X. J. Kennedy’s “Transformation” is another poem in common meter with alternating rhyme types, though here the masculine rhymes make the first pair and the feminine rhymes make the second:
One at a time my joints let go,
To be replaced by metal.
I have a sense that, down below,
I’m turning to a kettle.
We can illustrate trisyllabic (or “triple”) rhymes with an example of the genre of the epitaph that satirizes the deceased in light of their profession:
Epitaph on a Dentist
Stranger, approach this spot with gravity;
John Brown is filling his last cavity.
Some prosodists call triple rhyme sdrucciola, which is an onomatopoetic Italian word meaning “slippery” that Italians use to denote trisyllabic rhyme.
Triple rhymes are associated with comic verse, as in Lord Byron’s Don Juan. In that poem, “goddesses” and “bodices” and “Odysseys” (1.41) comprise one memorably over-the-top group, though you have to fudge the pronunciation of Homeric allusion to chime it fully with its rhyme companions. However, we do occasionally encounter triple rhymes in effectively serious poems. In his movingly elegiac “The Voice,” for instance, Thomas Hardy rhymes the first and third lines of his quatrains with these triple rhymes: “call to me” and “all to me”; “view you, then” and “knew you then”; “wistlessness” and “listlessness.” And Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poignant “An Old Story” features trisyllabic rhymes in the first and third lines of its cross-rhyming quatrains:
Strange that I did not know him then,
That friend of mine!
I did not even show him then
One friendly sign;
But cursed him for the ways he had
To make me see
My envy of the praise he had
For praising me.
I would have rid the earth of him
Once, in my pride! . . .
I never knew the worth of him
Until he died.
People sometimes call rhymes involving multiple words “mosaic rhymes,” referring to the fact that words are pieced together into an arresting (or outrageous) rhyme in the same way that bits of colored stone are inlaid into a material to form an eye-catching pattern. Some stipulate that, in truly mosaic rhymes, one member of the rhyme pair or group should be a whole word. Perhaps the idea is that the whole word serves as a solid and continuous ground or frame, according to which or into which the separate words of its rhyme partner or partners are arranged. By this criteria, rhymes like know him then/show him then lack mosaic bona fides, whereas the rhymes in the opening couplets of Cunningham’s “Here lies New Critic” and Wendy Cope’s “At 70” satisfy the Pure Mosaic standard:
Here lies New Critic, who would fox us
With his poetic paradoxes . . .
Of fitness and vitality I am not the epitome.
I sometimes think there’s something wrong with nearly every bit o’ me. . . .
Partial rhyme has a dizzying number of varieties, and there exist a dizzying number of terms to describe them. Partial rhyme has also been called “imperfect rhyme” (which seems unduly hard on the device), “near rhyme,” “off rhyme,” “half rhyme,” and “slant rhyme.” This last term may derive from Emily Dickinson, who uses partial rhymes frequently and who begins one of her best-known poems, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Admittedly, the word is in this context an adverb, not an adjective, plus which it refers to telling the truth, not to rhyming a poem. But I haven’t come across any more plausible explanation of how the word came to be associated with partial rhyme. In any case, the remarks that follow attempt to distinguish its different types.
Consonantal rhyme entails the pairing of syllables or words whose vowel sounds differ but whose terminal consonants match. As with full rhyme, so with consonantal rhyme (and with most other forms of partial rhyme), it is likeness of sound—and not necessarily likeness of spelling—that matters. This is evident in the first of the two consonantally rhymed couplets below. Its terminal consonant is r, though the word that ends the second line has a mute e following the r:
Will you turn a deaf ear
To what they said on the shore,
Interrogate their poises
In their rich houses . . .
W. H. Auden, “The Questioner Who Sits So Sly”
As the second of these couplets indicates, if, in partially rhymed verse, hypermetrical syllables follow the final metrical beats of the lines, the extra syllables will match, just as they match in verse with full rhymes.
A related form of partial rhyme involves the absence of terminal consonants—that is, it involves the pairing of different open vowels. “Open” in this context means that the vowels are not “closed” by being followed by a consonant. Open-vowel rhyme (let’s call it that) appears, along with other forms of partial rhyme, in Dickinson’s verse. For instance, in a stanza of one of her lovely poems about sunlight (“A Light exists in Spring”), she matches long e with long u:
It waits upon the Lawn,
It show the further tree.
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.
To return to Auden’s “The Questioner Who Sits So Sly,” we find open vowel rhyme in this couplet:
Whose anecdotes betray
His favorite color as blue
And the second pair of rhymes in this stanza from Philip Larkin’s off-rhyming “Toads” involves open vowels. (The first pair is consonantal.)
For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are as heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow.
Again, rhyme entails correspondences of sound but not necessarily of spelling. At first blush, it may look like the a of “betray” in Auden’s poem is closed by y, but in fact the y is simply serving as the second letter of a digraph indicating a long a sound. (The same thing happens in words like “May,” “play,” and “say”; i serves a similar a-lengthening function in words like “rain” and “gain.”) Likewise, in Larkin’s stanza, the w of “snow” is not a closing consonant but part of a digraph that often appears in conjunction with a, e, and o and contributes to the vowel sounds in such words as in “saw,” “dew,” “cow,” and “know.”
At the risk of splitting hairs or introducing unnecessary nuances, we might observe that open-vowel rhymes don’t really rhyme, even partially. Vowels do share key characteristics. All are voiced (produced with vibration of the vocal cords), and all involve the unobstructed passage of breath in the vocal tract. And their family resemblance is consequently stronger than is the case with consonants, which are more various, easier to describe precisely, and less subject to regional variability in pronunciation. Some consonants are voiced. Some aren’t. And though all entail obstruction of the flow of breath, they do so in several ways. For instance, some are plosive, like pand d, and involve the catch and release of breath. Some are fricative, like fand th, and involve setting lips or tongue against the upper front teeth. Some are nasal, like m, n, and ng, and involve sending the air out of the nose as well as the mouth.
Nevertheless, we do distinguish vowels from one another, and do so by how much we open the mouth and where we set the tongue. They range—as Terry Santos, my friend and colleague at Cal State University once pointed out to me-- from the high frontal long ein “eat” to the low rear sound of the ahin “caw.” When we describe “bit” and “beat” as consonantal rhymes, we indicate that both end with the same “voiceless alveolar plosive stop, produced by the release of breath blocked by the tongue being placed against the roof of the mouth behind the front teeth,” to use the description of t given by The Oxford Companion to the English Language. In contrast, when we describe “tree” and “you” as open-vowel rhymes, we are not suggesting that the vowels sound alike but that they resemble one another in the manner in which we pronounce them. Perhaps the term “near rhyme” better characterizes their nature than “partial rhyme” does.
Assonantal rhyme involves the pairing of syllables or words whose vowels are the same but whose following consonant sounds differ. In poetry composed for the speaking voice, such rhymes are less common than consonantal ones, but they frequently appear in pop songs. As was noted a few moments ago, we produce vowels with continuous breath, and in sustaining and emphasizing syllables or words—in giving them tone and color—singers hold the vowels. Consonants are important, too. As in speech, they mark the boundaries between syllables and words. But the vowels have the resonance. If the singer richly and clearly articulates them, their correspondences can maintain the rhyme scheme. Most of the rhymes in, for instance, Bruce Springsteen’s classic “Born to Run” are assonantal: “dream” and “machines”; “young” and “run”; “trap” and “back”; “feels” and real”; “mist” and “kiss”; “drive” and “hide.”
Most types of partial rhyme appear mainly in recent practice and reflect the interest in experimental methods that we associate with modern verse; however, assonantal rhyme has a long history. We find in Celtic verse and in the Old French poems like The Song of Roland. Among modern poets, Dylan Thomas notably employs assonantal rhymes. Thomas was Welsh and was fascinated with Welsh verse and with its intricate harmonics (cynghanedd), including those involving assonance. Here’s the first stanza from “Fern Hill,” a stanza in which Thomas pairs “boughs” and “towns”; “green” and “leaves”; “starry” and “barley”; and “climb,” “eyes,” and “light”:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the day was green,
The night above the dingle starry
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honored among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
Eye rhymes appear from their spelling to match perfectly but are pronounced differently. Prove/love, home/come, pull/dull, though/enough, and specious/precious are examples. In some cases, these pairs rhymed fully at earlier stages of English, and many poets have retained them by convention. A. E. Housman in “To an Athlete Dying Young” and Larkin in “At Grass,” employ home/come; and Larkin uses prove/love in the final stanza of “An Arundel Tomb.” However, poets keenly sensitive to sound and devoted to rhyme sometimes disparage eye rhymes for superficially suggesting harmonies that they don’t actually deliver. For instance, Hopkins comments in a letter (21 Aug. 1877) to Robert Bridges, “Such rhymes as love and prove I scout utterly.”
Rich rhyme—sometimes called identical rhyme—occurs when the paired syllables or words sound the same. That is, the matching entails not only the central vowel and whatever follows it, but also whatever precedes it. Rich rhymes are far more common in Middle English poetry and French poetry than in Modern English verse. Usually, rich rhymes involve words that have different meanings despite sounding the same. For instance, “top” meaning “uppermost” will be paired with “top” meaning “to defeat or to better.” “Piece” meaning “portion” will be paired with “peace,” meaning “the presence of cordial relations between nations.” The former type of rich rhyme is sometimes called “homographic,” the latter “homophonic.”
Vikram Seth’s “Distressful Homonyms” is an excellent poem with homographic rich rhymes. In this poem, Seth matches “spare” (the verb) with “spare” (the adjective), “state” (the noun meaning “condition”) with “state” (the verb), “rest” (meaning “repose”) with “rest” (meaning “remainder”), and “even” (the adverb suggesting an unlikely instance) with “even” (meaning “smoothly” or “free from variation”):
Since for me now you have no warmth to spare
I sense I must adopt a sane and spare
Philosophy to ease a restless state
Fuelled by this uncaring. It will state
A very meagre truth: love, like the rest
Of our emotions, sometimes needs a rest.
Happiness, too, no doubt; and so, why even
Hope that “the course of true love” could run even?
Seth has mentioned in conversation that, following a convention of Tamil poetry, he also places similarly sounding syllables at the beginnings of lines: “Since”/”sense”; “Phil-“/Fuel”; “A ver-“/”Of our”; and “Hap-“/”Hope.”
Another kind of partial rhyme is apocopated rhyme. "Apocope" refers to the loss of letters or sounds at the ends of words. Apocopated rhyme occurs when a polysyllabic word, the accented syllable of which is next-to-last, teams with a metrically accented, monosyllabic word. In “Piccolo Commedia,” Wilbur introduces several apocopated rhymes. These include one (“man” and “Kansas”) in the poem’s first quatrain and another (“veranda” and “hand”) in its second.
He is no one I really know,
The sun-charred, gaunt young man
By the highway’s edge in Kansas
Thirty-odd years ago.
On a tourist-cabin veranda
Two middle-aged women sat
One, in a white dress, fat,
With a rattling glass in her hand . . .
To be more precise, the monosyllabic rhyme words here are apocopated: each lacks a syllable at its end that would enable it fully to answer its partner.
Yet another kind of partial rhyme varies this procedure. Here, too, a monosyllabic and metrically accented word partners with a polysyllabic word accented on the penultimate syllable. But in this case, the metrically accented monosyllable matches the metrically unaccented final syllable of the polysyllabic word. Perhaps we may call it off-the-beat rhyme. Robert Graves uses such rhymes in the final stanza of “The Reader over My Shoulder.” “Sycophancy” teams with “me”; “patron” with “done”; “wit” with spirit.”
For you in strutting, you in sycophancy,
Have played too long this other part of me,
Doubling the part of judge and patron
With that of creaking grind-stone to my wit
Know me, have done: I am a proud spirit
And you for ever clay. Have done.
We find, in a different prosodic context, many such off-the-beat rhymes in the purely syllabic verse of Marianne Moore. (In syllabic verse, lines are determined by fixed numbers of syllables but do not feature regular rhythm or recurrent feet.) Rhymes in, for example, Moore’s “The Jerboa,” include “give” and “native”; “pick” and “magic”; “cotton” and “spun”; “he” and “plenty”; “fur” and “danger”; and “toe” and “burrow.”
Some writers call such rhymes “wrenched,” though this latter term, as I understand it, implies that the poet intends us to mispronounce the polysyllabic word involved, giving strong stress to its normally unaccented final syllable to achieve full rhyme. But this is not the intention of Graves or Moore, as is evident from, among other things, their recordings of their poems, in which they give the partially rhyming words their normal pronunciation.
“Wrenched” rhyme seems more naturally a part of song and ballad traditions. In songs and ballads, the note at the end of a line or a stanza is often extended, and its duration absorbs the wrenched effect. An instance of this from my youth occurs in “Surf City”—a song written by Brian Wilson and Jan Berry and performed by Jan and Dean--which topped the charts in June of 1964. At one point, the protagonist offers a couplet describing his beat-up but nevertheless useful automobile, and the long note at the end of the first line enables him to secure a full rhyme that in normal speech would sound odd or affected:
Well, it ain’t got a backseat or a rear windów,
But it still gets me where I wanna go.
The final stanza of Robert Burns’s version of “The Ballad of John Barleycorn” offers another good example of wrenched rhyme. Burns first heard the ballad to the tune of “Lull Me Beyond Thee,” and he evidently makes use of the dotted quarter note at the end of the verses of the song to support his shifting of accent to the second syllable of “Scotland”:
Let us then toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland.
That the ballad setting accounts here for the wrenched accent of “Scotland” (rather than, say, an archaic or regional pronunciation) seems to be confirmed by the fact that Burns normally treats the name of his country as accented on the first syllable. We see this in, for example, “The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer,” his plea to Scottish members of Parliament to protest the laws by which their English colleagues were restricting and bankrupting Scottish Distilleries. (The “Premier Youth” is William Pitt the Younger who in 1784 became Prime Minister at the age of 24 and who was still only 26 or 27 when Burns wrote this poem.)
Stand forth, an’ tell yon PREMIER YOUTH
The honest, open, naked truth;
Tell him o’ mine and Scotland’s drouth*, *thirst
His servants humble:
The muckle* devil blaw* you south, *great, blow
If ye dissemble!
* * * *
Auld* Scotland has a raucle* tongue; *Old, rough
She’s just a devil wi’ a rung*; *cudgel
An’ if she promise auld or young
To tak their part,
Tho’ by the neck she should be strung,
She’ll no desert.
Auden introduces a folk-musical wrenched rhyme into the second stanza of his ballad, “As I Walked Out One Evening”:
And down by the brimming river,
I heard a lover sing
Under the arch of the railway:
“Love has no ending.”
However, in his public readings of the poem (at least those I have heard), Auden pronounces “ending” normally, with the accent on the first syllable.
A final type (at least as far as this discussion goes) of partial rhyme is double-consonant rhyme—sometimes called frame rhyme or pararhyme. Pararhymes have the same beginning and ending consonants but with different vowels in the middle (e.g., bat/boat, dump/damp).Though such rhymes appear occasionally and naturally among poets who favor consonantal rhyme in general--Dickinson, for instance, matches "hid" with "head" in "Going to him! Happy letter!" and the second syllables of "confer" and "afar" in "'Tis customary as we part"--Wilfrid Owen is widely credited with systematically developing the device and demonstrating its potentials to subsequent poets in English. In fact, the term "pararhyme" appears to have been coined by Edmund Blunden in his memoir/introduction to his 1931 edition of Owen's poems; and Blunden insightfully remarks that by means of this form of rhyme, Owen "creates remoteness, darkness, shock, echo, the last word." Owen’s “Strange Meeting” is a virtuosic and often-cited exercise in double-consonant couplet rhymes. Here are its first ten lines. (On a couple of occasions in the poem, as in the fourth couplet below—“eyes” and “bless”—Owen slightly breaks from the double-consonant pattern.)
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.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
Mastering the terminology we’ve been considering is not necessary for writing or enjoying good poetry in rhyme or partial rhyme. But I hope that readers will have found some of the material interesting or informative
IV. Note on Internal Rhyme
Some call the rhymes we’ve been examining “end rhymes” to distinguish them from rhymes that involve chiming the middle of a line with the end of it. Rhymes of the latter type appear in medieval Latin verse and are sometimes called “leonine,” a term of uncertain origin. In English we customarily call these rhymes “internal.” We find such rhymes in a number of ballads, including Scott’s “County Guy,” the first stanza of which appears below. I’ll italicize the internal rhyme words and their line-ending partners:
Ah! County Guy, the hour is nigh,
The sun has left the lea,
The orange flower perfumes the bower,
The breeze is on the sea
The lark, his lay who thrill’d all day,
Sits hush’d, his partner nigh;
Breeze, bird, and flower confess the hour,
But where is County Guy?
Poets sometimes set rhyming words within their lines without placing them in a regularly patterned manner but using them as a general sounding-enriching ornament. Hopkins frequently employ this kind of internal rhyme. Like Dylan Thomas, he loved Welsh poetry, and his practice reflects this love. The opening quatrain of Hopkins’s sonnet, “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame,” offers good examples of this type of internal rhyming. (Though this plays no role in the internal rhyming, we should note that Hopkins placed, in his manuscript of his poem, a mark over the first two syllables of “dragonflies” to indicate that he was, for metrical purposes, treating them as slurred together into a single syllable.)
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over time in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name.
In addition to rhymes at the ends of his lines, Hopkins here rhymes words within the lines (“ring,” string,” and “fling”; “hung,” “swung,” and “tongue”). And within line three, he echoes (with “tells”) one of his end rhymes. He also, we may observe in passing, enriches his lines with additional schemes of sound and grammar, including alliterations (king-catch; fishers-fires-flies-flame; dragon-draw; tumbled-time; As-over; roundy-ring; tucked-tells; Bow-broad; finds-fling) and parallelisms (catch fire/draw flame; each tucked string/ each hung bell’s).
Because words will naturally chime now and again in any extended piece of writing, internal rhymes may also appear incidentally in a poem. For instance, the fourth and eighth syllables rhyme in line 7 of the second of Arthur Hugh Clough’s “Commemoration Sonnets”:
Teaching, upon the light Slavonic toe
It is doubtful, however, that Clough himself consciously registered this rhyme. It probably just happened. Nor, when we read, do we generally register such rhymes. Indeed, it is well we don’t dwell on such fleeting correspondences. We should be sensitive to sound but not to the extent that it distracts from, or diminishes our appreciation of, sense.
V. A Note on Alliteration
Sometimes called “head rhyme” or “initial rhyme,” alliteration involves the repetition of the same sound at the beginnings of words or syllables in close proximity with one another. Some dictionaries and literary handbooks associate the device mainly or exclusively with consonant sounds, though vowels alliterate no less than consonants, as children learn from alphabet books (“A is for Apple, an Atom, An Arrow . . . E is for Egret, an Earring, an Engine,” etc.). For that matter, the best-known comment about alliteration in English poetry involves not a consonant but the letter a. This comment occurs in Charles Churchill’s Prophecy of Famine, in a passage in which Churchill ironically apologizes for not ornamenting his verse with rhetorical trimmings, characterizing himself (85-86) as among those poets
Who often, but without success, have pray’d
For apt ALLITERATION’S artful aid.
Perhaps students of alliteration have downplayed vowel alliteration for etymological reasons. As the Oxford Companion to the English Language points out, the term literally means “putting (the same) letters together”; and because all vowels can alliterate with one another, they are prone to violate the sameness principle implied by the term. However, certain consonants represent different sounds and can alliterate with each other as promiscuously as vowels do. For instance, c mixes both in k-sounding groups like “Achilles’ cup and kettle” and in s-sounding groups like “Cease your simpering.” Moreover, changes and oddities in English pronunciation and orthography can play havoc with assumptions that alliteration is a matter of alphabetic conformity. When, in “Inversaid,” Hopkins exclaims, “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and of wildness,” it may take a moment for our eyes to catch up with our ears and to register that, due its initial but unspelled w, “once” participates in the alliterative pattern of the lines.
In any case, vowel alliteration occurs in accentual-alliterative poems in English. This is true of very early ones, as is shown by the lines below from Beowulf and Waldere. (We will remember that the accentual-alliterative line conventionally has four principal stresses, two on either side of a medial cesura. The third of the stressed syllables generally determines the alliterative pattern, with the first two stressed syllables alliterating with it. The fourth of the stressed syllables usually doesn’t alliterate with the preceding three.)
/ x x / x x x / x /
egsode eorlas syððan ærest wearð
[he terrified nobles though first he was found]
/ x x / x / x x / x
agan mid eldum, Ælfheres sunu
[have among men, son of Ælfheres]
Similarly, we encounter vowel alliteration in modern accentual-alliterative poems. In the second example below, the poet drops his second half-line beneath and to the right of the first, evidently to give a clear visual sense of the line’s division into hemistichs.
x x / x x / x / x /
Or his own silhouette might all too soon
(Auden, “Age of Anxiety,” Part One [verse section], 21)
x / x /
As if they aimed
x x / x / x
to be open with us
(Wilbur, “The Lilacs,” 10)
And of course we find alliteration, consonantal and vocalic alike, in poems in conventional meters, as in the two iambic pentameters below by Wallace Stevens. It will be noted that, in the first of the lines, the metrically unaccented syllable of “grammarians” participates in the alliteration established by three more strongly stressed syllables. (This happens as well in Churchill’s line, “For apt alliteration’s artful aid”: the initial, metrically unaccented syllable of “alliteration” collaborates, if somewhat faintly, with the metrically accented “apt,” “art-,” and “aid.”)
/ x x / x / x / x /
Gloomy grammarians in golden gowns
(“On a Manner of Addressing the Clouds,” 1)
x / x / x / x / x /
For answer from their icy Élysée
(“Of Heaven Considered as a Tomb,” 15)
In the line immediately above, a subsidiary alliterative scheme is produced the second syllable of “answer,” the second syllable of “icy,” and the third syllable of “Élysée.” And we could analyze other phonetic properties of these lines, such as n-sounds in the first and the r-sounds in the second, But that way madness lies. A poet as richly appreciative of words as Stevens will strike many interesting effects in passing—some intentional, some not—and it’s best simply to enjoy their general texture and not over-analyze them.
Like all rhetorical devices, alliteration requires that those who use it exercise good judgment. Otherwise, it may sound gaudy and affected. Readers in my generation can readily appreciate this situation, thanks to Spiro T. Agnew, who from 1969 to 1973 served as Vice President under President Richard Nixon. Agnew won a national following by attacking, in highly and sometimes bizarrely alliterative language, liberal Democrats, anti-war protestors, the press, and others perceived to be enemies of the Nixon administration. Such groups were, in Agnew’s formulations, “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” “supercilious sophisticates,” “vicars of vacillation,” “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history,” and “nattering nabobs of negativity.” A bribery scandal eventually forced Agnew from office, and subsequently the president himself resigned because of the Watergate affair. But by the time these events occurred, alliteration had become associated with Agnew’s mannered practice of it; and it took some while for it to recover its reputation as an honorable element of literary composition.
The simplest pattern of rhyme is couplet rhyme—the rhyming of the terminations of adjacent lines. We can distinguish two basic kinds of couplet rhyme. The first kind is “closed”—meaning that the couplet itself stands as a self-contained unit of thought as well as an arrangement of sound. Structured in this way, the couplet can be an instrument of great wit, force, and focus. We see these qualities 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.
If closed couplets carry a potential liability, it is that poets writing them may end up merely accumulating a succession of quasi-epigrams rather than developing an argument or narrative, or exploring an experience, idea, or feeling.
The second type of couplet is “open.” The poet draws grammar and thought across line- and couplet-endings. Used thus the couplet permits extensions and qualifications of argument or analysis that we don’t always find in the punchier closed couplet. John Donne’s “The Calm” well illustrates some of the virtues of the open couplet. In this poem, Donne describes being a volunteer on the British Fleet’s expedition to the Azores in 1597—an expedition that first suffered a violent storm and then the opposite misfortune of being becalmed. Speaking of the latter episode, Donne asks himself why he ever joined the expedition and relates the terrible lethargy, helplessness, and self-doubt he felt during the calm:
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.
The open couplet is also capable of descriptive flexibility, as we see in Robert Bridges’s “Elegy: The Summer House on the Mound.” Bridges was born in 1844 in Walmer in Kent, on the southeast coast of England, and as a little boy he would climb a hill overlooking the Channel and observe through a spyglass the sailing ships out on the water. As he explains in his poem, the scene completely absorbed him. (Bridges wrote a fascinating book on Milton’s prosody, describing, among other things, Milton’s elisions; and I would be remiss if I didn’t note that the opening line of the passage below has two elisions. The first involves a contraction or slur involving adjacent vowels: “many an hour” counts metrically as “man yan hour.” The second is an elision through h: “I have sat” counts metrically as “I’ve sat.” This latter elision also figures in the fourth-to-last line below: “I have watch’d,” that is, counts metrically as “I’ve watched.” In reading the passage ourselves, we do not have to pronounce these elisions if we don’t wish to; I mention them only to clarify how Bridges conceived of the lines structurally.)
There many an hour I have sat to watch: nay, now
The brazen disc is cold against my brow,
And in my sight a circle of the sea
Enlarged to swiftness, where the salt waves flee,
And ships in stately motion pass so near
That what I see is speaking to my ear:
I hear the waves dash and the tackle strain,
The canvas flap, the rattle of the chain
That runs out thro’ the hawse, the clank of the winch
Winding the rusty cable inch by inch,
Till half I wonder if they have no care,
Those sailors, that my glass is brought to bear
On all their doings, if I vex them not
On every petty task of their rough lot
Prying and spying, searching every craft
From painted truck to gunnel, fore and aft,—
Thro’ idle Sundays as I have watch’d them lean
Long hours upon the rail, or neath its screen
Prone on the deck to lie outstretch’d at length,
Sunk in renewal of their wearied strength.
Worth noting is skill with which Bridges correlates his enjambments—his run-over lines and couplets—with what he describes. He vivifies the poem’s physical details by such turns as “a circle of the sea / Enlarged to swiftness” and “the rattle of the chain / That runs out thro’ the hawse, the clank of the winch / Winding the rusty cable.”(Also, the anapestic fifth of the foot of the line about the winch nicely suggests the balky operation of that instrument.)
Poets interested in couplets are not obliged to favor exclusively either the closed variety or the run-over type. They may mix the two approaches in various ways, reflective their individual preferences for rhythmical and grammatical arrangement. Renaissance masters of the couplet like Donne and Ben Jonson tend to manage it more freely and flexibly than the great poets of the Restoration and the eighteenth century like Dryden, Pope, Samuel Johnson, Goldsmith, and George Crabbe. More recently, Robert Browning, Bridges, Yvor Winters, and the young Robert Lowell experimented with and developed the run-over couplet, while fine modern practitioners of the closed, epigrammatic couplet have included Bogan, Cunningham, Kennedy, John Frederick Nims, and Wendy Cope. The excellent couplet poems of W. B. Yeats, Frost, Wilbur, Gunn, and Dick Davis fall in between the two types, at times closed and epigrammatic, at other times flowing from thought to thought or image to image.
Be it noted that the examples of the couplet given here are in pentameter. They are “heroic couplets,” so called because they were once thought to be particularly well-suited to English epic poetry and to English translations of the ancient epics of Homer and Virgil. However, poets have written couplets in dimeter (e. g., Larkin’s “New eyes each year”), trimeter (e. g., Rhina Espaillat’s’ “Flipping Through”), tetrameter (Wiiliam Collins’s “How sleep the brave, who sink to rest”), and hexameter (e. g., Turner Cassity’s “The Disposition of Retirement Pay”). For that matter, English-language poets have written couplet poems in non-iambic meters, including trochaic tetrameter catalectic (e. g., eight of the 10 poems of Ben Jonson’s “Celebration of Charis in Ten Lyric Pieces” and Joshua Mehigan’s “Psalm”) and anapestic tetrameter (e. g., Jonathan Swift’s “Clever Tom Clinch Going to Be Hanged”).
A 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 the 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 rhyme 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. We can indicate this range by citing titles of a few well-known cross-rhyming poems: Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” 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,” Yeats’s “Words,” Frost’s, “To Earthward,” Edward Thomas’s “Tall Nettles,” Claude McKay’s “The Barrier,” Louise Bogan’s “The Romantic,” Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” Edgar Bowers’s “The Stoic,” and Gunn’s “Death’s Door.”
Envelope rhyme is a third and final basic pattern. Here a pair of outer rhymes embrace a pair of inner ones, as in 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,” Yvor Winters’s “An October Nocturne,” and Wilbur’s “Flying.”
A stanza is 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 arrangements 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).
Though the ballad stanza is generally defined as involving tetrameters and trimeters, ballads themselves can take different forms. Probably, the only constants are that they rhyme and involve lines of less-than-pentameter length. Keats’s “Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad,” for example, has like a Dickinson’s stanza with an abcb rhyme scheme, but the succession of its four lines is tetrameter-tetrameter-tetrameter-dimeter. And Langston Hughes’s “Song for a Dark Girl” has the abcb scheme as well, but makes the a and c lines end on unaccented syllables and uses trimeter throughout the quatrains. Sometimes the trimeters are trochaic (lines 1, 5, and 9). Sometimes, they’re trochaic catalectic (2, 4, and 10). Sometimes they’re iambic (6 and 8) or iambic with feminine endings (3, 7, and 11).( The last line consists of an anapest and two iambs.) But everything fits powerfully together, thanks to Hughes’s steady and varied management of the three-beat measure and the rhymes.
Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.
Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.
Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.
To illustrate the kinds of intricately complicated stanzas poets sometimes adopt, we can do no better than cite Herrick’s “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.
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 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 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 readers navigate them.
We can appreciate the organizational capacity of stanzas by examining Dick Davis’s “Farewell to the Mentors.” In this poem, Davis speaks of his longstanding admiration for work of Edward Fitzgerald, Housman, Auden, and Edgar Bowers but comments that their poems are of less practical help to him since he married and became a father. (All four poets were gay at times when laws proscribing homosexuality were still on the books in England and the United States, so none of them married or had children.)
Old bachelors to whom I’ve turned
For comfort in my life,
I find you less than useful now,
I’ve children and a wife;
And though you’re great on Weltschmerz, loss,
Lust, irony, old age,
I draw a blank when looking for
Advice on teenage rage;
On sibling rivalry and rows
I can’t begin to rate you,
You’re silent when it comes to screams
Of “Dad, I really hate you.”
So get you gone Fitz., Edgar, Wystan,
And dear old Housman too;
It’s clear that at this juncture I
Need other guides than you.
In his first stanza, Davis states his theme: now married and with children, he does not find his literary-spiritual heroes as solacing as he once did. In the second stanza, he develops the theme, praising the eloquence with which they speak of various serious issues but noting that they are silent on the subject of teenage rage. In the third stanza, he observes that this subject has become especially critical since, as a father, he must adjudicate disputes between his children, who don’t always appreciate his efforts. The fourth and final stanza states the conclusion he draws from the situation: he’ll now have to look elsewhere for guidance.
Though Davis closes the first two stanzas with semi-colons rather than periods, each is grammatically self-contained, as are the third and fourth stanzas. This arrangement enables us to follow his argument easily and to grasp, understand, and sympathize with his plight (and be touched by the bittersweet humor with which he meets it).
Just as poets can vary the disposition of their lines—end-stopping one here and enjambing one there--to give full focus and expression to 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 is master of this technique. His early poem “A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra” is a tour de force in this respect. The stanzas spill from one into another in the way that the fountain’s waters rise from its jet and splash down into and over the basins below.
Another poem by Wilbur that illustrates way in which stanzaic management can be expressively significant is “The Ride.” In loose iambic trimeters that rhyme abab, this poem describes an eerie dream in which the sleeping poet finds transported through a frozen landscape by a horse whose warmth and sureness of its direction keep him safe amid the surrounding desolation. The poem is characteristic of Wilbur’s fascination with liminal states of being and consciousness. and also reflects his faith that reality includes more than what we perceive our waking senses and rational mind:
The horse beneath me seemed
To know what course to steer
Through the horror of snow I dreamed,
And so I had no fear,
Nor was I chilled to death
By the wind’s white shudders, thanks
To the veils of his patient breath
And the mist of sweat from his flanks.
It seemed that all night through,
Within my hand no rein
And nothing in my view
But the pillar of his mane,
I rode with magic ease
At a quick, unstumbling trot
Through shattering vacancies
On into what was not,
Till the weave of the storm grew thin,
With a threading of cedar-smoke,
And the ice-blind pane of an inn
Shimmered, and I awoke.
How shall I now get back
To the inn-yard where he stands,
Burdened with every lack,
And waken the stable-hands
To give him, before I think
That there was no horse at all,
Some hay, some water to drink,
A blanket and a stall?
The first two stanzas set the scene. Though the dreaming poet finds himself in a terrifying landscape—a “horror of snow”—he rides a horse who preserves him. While only a comma separates the second stanza from the first, each stanza is grammatically complete; the description is delivered in crisp, clear phrases.. Beginning in the third stanza, however, Wilbur opens up the stanza endings to let the poem move fluently forward to capture the dreamlike quality of the ride. In the final line of the fifth stanza, he introduces a trochee (“Shimmered”) that abruptly shifts the rhythm and signals the end of the ride and the dream. Then, in the final two stanzas, he suggests the significance of the experience: he can’t literally get back to the horse because it is not part of his waking, sensory world. Nevertheless, the horse exists and deserves his faith and gratitude. Though a mystery, it carried him through desolation and comforted him in, perhaps, the face of death. The haunting power of the poem results chiefly from Wilbur’s sensitive ear and memorably economical language. But his skillful management of his stanzas also contributes to the poem’s effectiveness.
Stanzas, then, enact the same timeless dialectic of art that meters and rhymes do, balancing likeness and unlikeness, coherence and diversity.
This website and its contents © 2020 Timothy Steele, unless otherwise indicated