Rhyme and Form
Rhyme was originally invented as a memory aid – and is still used to this day in this sense in children’s nursery rhymes. Rhyme was not used by the Ancient Greek or Roman poets, nor in the Bible, but started to emerge in Late Antiquity. The earliest example of rhyme in poetry was the leonine verse, which incorporated internal rhyme or sprung rhyme (rather than end-/tail-rhymes): words rhyming with each other within a single line.
Rhyme only emerged in English poetry around the 12th century and was popularised by Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales). Between the 16th and 17th centuries, playwrights such as Shakespeare and epic poets like John Milton began employing blank verse in much of what they wrote, that is verse which did not rhyme but which stuck to a particular metrical rhythm [we will look more at this in a later class]. However, Shakespeare did at times employ rhyme in his plays and also famously in his sonnets, which in English have acted as the template for this particular form, give or take some variations. Rhyme particularly came into fashion in English from the late 18th century through to the early 20th century. Afterwards, Modernism brought back blank verse (non-rhyming metrical verse) and invented free verse (non-rhyming and non-metrical).
The poetic technique of marking rhyme form is by using letters of the alphabet – so A/B/A/B simply means that the first and third lines rhyme together, and the second and fourth lines rhyme together. There are many variations of rhyme form as will be explored below.
The most popularly used rhyming forms are:
The couplet = two lines rhyming together, e.g.:
A Romans called asthma rehearsal for death;
A Life was summed up as a shortness of breath.
The tercet = an Italian rhyming form used by Dante (in his famous epic poem The Divine Comedy), e.g.:
A The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
B Each like a corpse within its grave, until
A Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow.
– Percy Shelly, ‘Ode to the West Wind’
The quatrain = is the most popularly used in poetry: a four lined stanza (verse) which varies in rhyming form, e.g.:
A My eyes, full of purpose as bales of hay,
A roll about with an impulse like clouds during day,
B as the grains of corn sheaves spill out free
B like beads from a broken rosary.
A If someone’s about to kill themselves – distract them!
B Asks what interests them: it can’t do any harm.
B But if they really want to jump then let go of their arm
A (Though that’s not recommended for the problem).
A He imagines the wings that spirit away
B Wishes set free from the mind of the wisher;
A Pictures a lake on a still summer’s day,
B And flitting about it, a China Kingfisher.
A Let go. Forgive. Forget the bitterness
B That buttresses when love is dead:
C Most of what’s said isn’t meant
B And most of what’s meant isn’t said.
These latter two forms are probably the most widely used by contemporary poets. Beginners tend to instinctively go more for the AABB rhyme scheme, often in one long chunk such as AABBCCDDEEFFGG etc. Though one of the simplest rhyme schemes, it is also one of the hardest to get right without sounding clichéd in terms of choices of end-rhymes. It is important when rhyming never to let the substance or meaning of the poem be compromised by the quest to find end-rhymes. It is for such reasons that poets as far back as John Milton and Alexander Pope started to question the reliability and authenticity of rhyme. Some of the best exponents of rhyme without compromised substance in English poetry are: Andrew Marvell, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy, TS Eliot, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, WH Auden, Philip Larkin et al.
Here is a typical Shakespearean sonnet, with its rhyme scheme alphabetically marked for you:
A From fairest creatures we desire increase,
B That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
A But as the riper should by time decease,
B His tender heir might bear his memory:
C But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
D Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
C Making a famine where abundance lies,
D Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
E Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
F And only herald to the gaudy spring,
E Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
F And tender churl mak’st waste in niggarding:
G Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
G To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
[Note: the rhyme between B and B, as you will observe, is what is known as an ‘eye rhyme’, in that the ‘y’ of ‘memory’, from Shakespeare’s time up to the Romantics of the early 19th century, could be perceived on paper as an ‘i’ sound, as well as the actual ‘ee’ sound it would make if spoken. This was most famously employed in William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
But a more obvious example of ‘eye-rhyme’ is below, where the words at the end of both lines are matched up simply due to their similar form to the eye, though they sound different when spoken:
But since he died, and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love. (Shakespeare, Sonnet 32)
A sonnet would not normally appear in two parts as here, but this is to emphasize the essential separation between the initial subject/problem-posed, in form of an octave (eight lines), and its conclusion/solution, in form of a sestet (six lines). So a sonnet is meant to first pose a problem or enigma in its first section, and then to provide some form of closure or solution to this in the second section. The climax of the sestet comes in the form of a final poetic couplet or distich (two lines rhyming together). There are many variations on sonnets. Below is an example of a Petrarchan sonnet (though this sonnet type alone also has its variations):
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats
A Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
B And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
B Round many western islands have I been
A Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
A Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
B That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne:
B Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
A Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
C Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
D When a new planet swims into his ken;
C Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
D He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
C Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
D Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Note here that a final couplet/distich is not an essential ingredient to a sonnet, but is the mark mainly of a Shakespearean sonnet (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG), which has become a fairly common template for the form, or a Spenserian sonnet (after the 16th c. poet Edmund Spenser) (ABAB BCBC CDCD EE).
Here is a glossary of some other rhyme forms:
ballad = first three stanzas of ABABBCBC and then a last shorter stanza of BCBC (but the term ballad is often applied to any heavily rhythmic and rhyming poem which has a sprung, musical quality to its meter)
clerihew = AABB AABB
couplet (s) = AA BB CC DD EE FF etc.
limerick = AABBA
ode = an elaborate/descriptive lyric poem which has many variations in form, but the best known are Keats’ Great Odes, which mostly consisted of three ten line stanzas of ABABCDECDE rhyme schemes
rhyme royal = ABABBCC
triplet = AAA, often repeating like the couplet.
villanelle = five stanzas of ABA with a final sixth stanza of ABAA, the first and third lines of the first stanza to be repeated alternately verbatim as the last lines of each successive stanza, then both to appear as a distich for the last two lines
Half-rhyme and Internal/Sprung Rhyme
Half-rhyme is when words ending lines chime with each other either through consonant sounds or vowel sounds, rather than both together:
A As I was paddling in the water shallows,
B the ripples turned to waves,
B the paddling to a wade –
C while I tried to shallow my tumbling mind,
A the thoughts that swam in the water shallows
A were chased as fish by the shadows of sparrows.
A I can’t stand scant catechisms
B of tremors in an empty stomach;
C the stench of hunger-scented breath
B where a full belly’s the only tonic;
C the famished itch in-between the teeth
[C] where only food can feed relief.
Internal or Sprung Rhyme
This is when words rhyme with each other in the same line of a poem:
I couldn’t touch a stop and turn a screw,
And set the blooming world a-work for me,
Like such as cut their teeth — I hope, like you —
On the handle of a skeleton gold key;
I cut mine on a leek, which I eat it every week:
I’m a clerk at thirty bob as you can see.
But I don’t allow it’s luck and all a toss;
There’s no such thing as being starred and crossed;
It’s just the power of some to be a boss,
And the bally power of others to be bossed:
I face the music, sir; you bet I ain’t a cur;
Strike me lucky if I don’t believe I’m lost!
– from ‘Thirty Bob A Week’ by John Davidson
compiled by Alan Morrison for Creative Future