Hello and welcome, poets everywhere. My name is Tony Maude and it’s my pleasure to introduce this edition of Meeting the Bar.
Last time that I was behind the bar, I began what I hope will become a series of articles looking at the various aural devices that are available to us to give our poetry its distinctive, individual sound. It is the individual and distinctive ways that each of us uses rhythm, alliteration, assonance etc that combine to form our unique poetic voices.
Today I’d like to consider another of these poetic devices; rhyme.
A Brief History of Rhyme
“If it doesn’t rhyme it isn’t poetry.” I wonder how often you have heard this, or a similar sentiment, expressed, usually as a judgement about modern poetry (i.e. poetry of the past 150 years or so). When asked what makes writing poetry, the vast majority of people will soon fix on the presence of rhyme as a defining characteristic of a poem. But it hasn’t always been so.
The roots of formalised poetry can be traced back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks, but the concept of rhyme was completely unknown to them. Their poetry depended on the rhythms produced by using strict patterns of long and short syllables. To put that in poetry terminology, it is meter that was the hallmark of classical Greek poetry, and as I shared last time, it is meter or rhythm that is still the foundation onto which poems are constructed.
However, the roots of English language prosody lie not in classical Greek, but in Anglo-Saxon and Old English. These languages are not syllabic, but accented. Modern English is still a tonally accented language; when we speak we (unconsciously) stress some parts of words and sentences more than others. Anglo-Saxon poems are not constructed around syllables, but on the number of stressed words. In a line of Anglo-Saxon verse there are always four stressed words; three alliterate, the other does not. (For more on this, see both the article I wrote here and Beth’s article here.)
So where did rhyme come from and how did it find its way into English poetry? According to Frances Stillman’s The Poet’s Manual (you really should have a copy of this; you literally can buy it for pennies or cents, depending on where you are in the world) rhyme first came into use in the hymns and chants of Latin-speaking churches in North Africa around 200 CE. The use of rhyme in sacred poetry and music spread quickly.
During the Dark and Middle Ages, rhyme, as well as alliteration and assonance, was a major component of popular poetry, both in Latin and in the emerging modern languages of Provence, France and Italy, becoming almost universally accepted (the Spanish kingdoms were the exceptions to the rule) in European poetry by the 14th Century. Rhyme first appeared as a major component in English poetry during the time of Chaucer, when English language poets came increasingly influenced by French and Italian writers.
John Milton (1608 – 1678)
The fashion was not always popular. John Milton (above) was particularly abrupt in his opinion. He deplored this troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming, pointing out (correctly) that rhyme was no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of a Poem or good Verse … and even went so far as to call the use of rhyme both trivial and the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter.
However, despite Milton’s vehement protestations, rhyme was – and still is, perhaps because most of the poems we (are forced to) read at school are rhymed poems, perhaps because for many of us rhymes form such an essential part of our earliest memories – a major element of English language poetry. Stephen Fry in The Ode Less Travelled claims not to be able to think of an English language poet who never uses rhyme – and who am I to disagree?
But all of this begs the question
What is Rhyme?
According to Stillman,
Rhyme in verse is the repetition, in the lines of a poem, of the same end sound or sounds. Rhyme is composed of the last accented vowel in a line and any consonants and unaccented syllables that may follow it.
I hope that is clear … smiles. No! Ok, let’s look at what that means.
The first part of a rhyme is the vowel in the last stressed syllable of a rhyming word, but it takes more than that to make a rhyme. The closing consonant(s) and/or syllables should be the same, but the preceding consonants or syllables should not. So …
Cat forms a perfect rhyme with mat, bat, hat, that etc, but not with map (the final consonant is different).
Vowel forms a perfect rhyme with trowel, towel, howl etc.
Being forms a perfect rhyme with seeing, freeing, fleeing etc, but not with sing, hoping or rhyming (the ing syllable is unstressed in being, hoping and rhyming and so does not form part of the rhyme. In sing the ing sound is part of the stressed syllable).
Nay rhymes with may, say, sleigh, delay, ballet, Saturdayetc, but not with neigh. (Nay/neigh are identical sounds, not rhymes although I have heard the use of homophonic pairs of words like this referred to as perfect rhyme.)
Of course, if your pronunciation is different to mine, then it is possible that not all words that rhyme for me will be rhymes for you and vice versa. For example, for me Edinburgh rhymes with thorough and Curragh, but not with throw or flow … smiles.
Strictly speaking, Stillman’s definition above is not a definition of rhyme, but of Full End Rhyme. A Full Rhyme is one that has the same stressed vowel sound and the same closing consonants and syllables. If the stressed syllable is the last one in each of the rhymed lines then we have Full End Rhyme.
Rhyme can also occur within a line. This is internal rhyme – and I’ve got nothing else to say about that. As a seller of wood-treatments here in the UK claims, It does what it says on the tin.
Stay with me here, we’re almost done with rhyme. There is one more category of rhyme, which goes by a variety of names. Near-rhyme, slant-rhyme, half-rhyme and para-rhyme (I’ve never heard it called that, but it’s included in the glossary of Peter Sansom’s book Writing Poetry, someone, somewhere must use this term) occurs when some of the rhyming sounds are present, but not all of them.
Cat and bag, cat and cot, and orange and Boris are all near-rhyming pairs.
The Problem with Rhyme
Notwithstanding Milton’s complaints about the bondage of rhyme (sounds like the name of a poetry collection or an anthology to me … smiles) the real problem with rhyme is that too often its use results in poets using unnatural language, word order inversions and all manner of other schemes and tricks to force their rhyming words into the right places. But all of that leads to poems that sound forced and unnatural … and we should try to avoid that … smiles.
If we combine what we have (re)learned about rhyme with the rhythm that we were looking at last time I was behind the bar, we have almost all the ingredients of form poetry to hand, since many poetic forms are the result of overlaying particular rhythms – better still metres – with a scheme of rhymes. The king of rhyming forms – at least in my opinion – is the sonnet.
Three Sonnet Variations
At this point I could rehearse the history of the sonnet, but if there is ever to be an end to this deathless epic, then I probably better not. All that you need to know is widely available on the Web. If you want it in a printed form, Don Paterson’s book 101 Sonnets gives a thorough, but not too detailed history and appreciation of the form.
For our purpose today, we need to know that a sonnet is a fourteen line poem, usually written in iambic pentameter (i.e. each line has the following rhythm
and ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and FIVE)
There are three basic sonnet forms.
The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet is divided into two parts, an octave and a sestet (eight lines and six lines respectively). The octave has the rhyme scheme abba abba, while the sestet is rhymed cdecde, cdcdcd or cdccdc (other variants are sometimes found). Thus, to write a Petrarchan Sonnet, you need to have 4 or 5 sets of rhymes, depending on your treatment of the sestet.
Here is John Milton’s On His Deceased Wife which shows all this clearly (and also shows that he was able to write wonderful rhyming poetry despite his protestations about rhyme):
Methought I saw my late espousèd Saint (a)
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave, (b)
Whom Jove’s great Son to her glad Husband gave, (b)
Rescu’d from death by force though pale and faint, (a)
Mine as whom wash’d from spot of child-bed taint, (a)
Purification in the old Law did save, (b)
And such, as yet once more I trust to have (b)
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint, (a)
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind: (c)
Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight, (d)
Love, sweetness, goodness in her person shin’d (c)
So clear, as in no face with more delight. (d)
But O, as to embrace me she inclin’d (c)
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night. (d)
The second major sonnet form is the English sonnet, usually referred to as the Shakespearean sonnet because he was such a whizz at them.
The Shakespearean sonnet uses seven pairs of rhymes as follows; abab cdcd efef gg. Note especially the closing couplet, a feature that is never present in a Petrarchan sonnet. And here, by way of example, is one of the Bard’s most famous sonnets, Sonnet XVIII:
Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day? (a)
Thou art more lovely and more temperate: (b)
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, (a)
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: (b)
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, (c)
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d: (d)
And every fair from fair sometime declines, (c)
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d: (d)
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade (e)
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; (f)
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade, (e)
When in eternal lines to time thou growest: (f)
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, (g)
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (g)
A third – and much less common – sonnet form was developed by Edmund Spenser.
Edmund Spenser (1552 – 1599)
The Spenserian sonnet has a scheme of 5 rhymes laid out as follows: abab bcbc cdcd ee. Here’s an example of that, Whilst it is Prime by Spenser himself:
Fresh Spring, the herald of love’s mighty king, (a)
In whose cote-armour richly are displayed (b)
All sorts of flowers, the which on earth do spring, (a)
In goodly colours gloriously array’d – (b)
Go to my love, where she is careless laid, (b)
Yet in her winter’s bower not well awake; (c)
Tell her the joyous time will not be stay’d, (b)
Unless she do him by the forelock take; (c)
Bid her therefore her self soon ready make, (c)
To wait on Love amongst his lovely crew; (d)
Where every one, that misseth then her make, (c)
Shall be by him amearst with penance due. (d)
Make haste, therefore, sweet love, whilst it is prime; (e)
For none can call again the passèd time. (e)
As I say, these are the three main sonnet variations; there are lots of others, but we really do need to move on. And so, without any further ado (at last, I hear you say … smiles) to …
Today’s prompt is for sonnets, which represent an almost perfect marriage of poem length, rhyme and metre. Any form of sonnet on any subject will do; the challenge is in the combination of metre and rhyme that the sonnet form(s) call for.
Here’s what to do now:
• Write your sonnet and post it to your blog.
• Add a link to your poem via the ‘Mr Linky’ below.
• This opens a new screen where you’ll enter your information, and where you also choose links to read. Once you have pasted your poem’s blog URL and entered your name, click Submit. Don’t worry if you don’t see your name right away.
• If you write more than one sonnet, it’s OK to link them separately … smiles.
• Read and comment on other people’s work to let them know it’s being read.
• Share your work and that of your fellow poets via your favourite social media platforms.
• Above all – have fun!