Rhyme is by no means a feature of poetry in every language in which poetry has been composed. In those traditions in which it does appear, however – such as English – it is one of poetry’s most persistent and recognisable characteristics.
The principal effects of rhyme are twofold: it enhances and diversifies the soundscapes of a poem (often by heightening the sense of that poem as a piece of oral art and/or by making it sound more musical); and it enriches the meaning of the poem as a whole, both by contributing to the creation of an overarching atmosphere (or sequence of atmospheres) within which the various sayings and doings of the poem take place, and by drawing out some of the specific and/or supplementary connotations of the poem’s individual words and word-clusters in the process.
At the same time, rhyme may also be taken to express a worldview: a view of the world in which one thing fits – or can at least be made to fit (confidently, tentatively, seriously, playfully, or whatever) – with another. The manner in which one word rhymes with another, that is – whether it rhymes fully or in part, whether it is a distant rhyme barely heard or one in close proximity that forces itself upon our consciousness, whether it belongs to a larger pattern of rhymes or is one of a kind, for instance – can also express something about the poem’s broader perception of how things fit together (or do not fit together) in the world or topic it presents.
Rhymes most commonly occur – or, at least, are most commonly observed and thus able to generate their most perceptible and powerful effects – at the ends of lines. When a poem consists primarily of these so-called end rhymes, moreover – which is to say, when the ending of just about every line rhymes with the ending of at least one other line in what looks like a consistent pattern – rhyme in and of itself sends out a set of significant signals about the text to which we respond independently of our interpretation of the semantic content or sonic resonance of any of the rhyming words it contains.
Four of the most significant things such end-rhymes tell us are
- that the piece we are reading or listening to is a poem
- when the end of a line has been reached
- how the transition from one line to the next is to be experienced (as a moment of pause, most usually, but also whether it is a moment of recollection or anticipation, of expectation or fulfilment, in relation to which the whole spectrum of sensations and emotions might be brought into play, from the joy of an awakened perception to the disappointment of hopes dampened or dashed)
- the ‘mood music’ of the poem as a whole, or at least of the individual movements that rise, fall, but in any case shift from one to the other within that poem
Varieties of end rhyme
Rhyme is a wide-ranging phenomenon that displays a variety of forms. Some textbooks, for instance, include such acoustical devices as assonance and alliteration within its ranks, whereas others do not. For the purposes of illustrating rhyme’s primary effects – and then suggesting ways of interpreting them – we will focus for the most part on the following three categories of end rhyme:
Full rhyme in which the final syllable or syllables of the words involved are identical, both in sound (usually because they share the same vowel + subsequent consonant sounds) and in rhythm (or stress)
Thus, must rhymes fully with august (pronounced auGUST with the stress on the second syllable and meaning “venerable”) but not with August (i.e. the month). This is because the stress falls on the -ust sound in both must and august, whereas it does not fall on that sound in August.
must / August, then, is not a full rhyme, but what is often called a
Half rhyme (or slant rhyme) in which either the same sound receives a different stress in each of the rhyming syllables or the sound of either the vowel or the subsequent consonant in each of those syllables is not identical
Further examples of half rhymes include such pairings as groaned/ground (because the vowel sound is slightly different in both cases) and grope/groat (because the final consonant is not pronounced in quite the same way). Please note that bone/flown is a full rhyme rather than a half rhyme because the vowel and subsequent consonant are pronounced the same in both cases (it does not matter that the consonants preceding the vowel – b and fl – do not share the same pronunciation).
The third kind of rhyme you should be aware of is
Eye rhyme in which the relevant syllables look as if they should be pronounced the same because of their spelling but are actually pronounced quite differently in practice
Examples of this kind of rhyme include laughter/daughter, cough/bough and any number of heteronyms such as sow (to scatter seeds) and sow (a female pig).
Eye rhymes rely on the reader being able to see the words (and thus the spelling of those words) on the page. They are accordingly predominantly a feature of poetry produced in literate societies and assume that at least some of their readers will encounter the poems in which they exist in their written form. Such rhymes serve in particular to uncouple (at least temporarily) the information we take in with our eyes and the information we take in with our ears (even if these are in practice our ‘internal ears’). The specific consequences of this can be various: in some cases, the evidence of our eyes and ears may end up actively contradicting one another; in others, the evidence of the one may rather affirm and/or supplement the evidence of the other. In all cases, however, eye rhyme instigates a moment of diversity, a broadening of the spectrum, in which we are given access to a wider range of impressions than each of those two senses could have managed alone or when working in harmony.
As a word of warning, if you come across what appears to be an eye rhyme in an older poem, you might want to find out if the syllables involved did in fact rhyme at the time they were written. The pronunciation of individual vowels, syllables and words has changed – sometimes quite dramatically – across time, just as it can change according to location. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for instance, contain pairings that look like half rhymes or even eye rhymes to us, but some of them at least may well have been full rhymes in his time. Good academic dictionaries, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, record these variations and thus provide a useful place to check.
In keeping with the gendered (and usually sexist) nature of many of the terms we have inherited for categorising different aspects of literary activity, a distinction is sometimes drawn between so-called masculine rhymes and so-called feminine rhymes. Nowadays labels such as stressed rhymes and unstressed rhymes are commonly used instead, but the earlier practice was so pervasive and is still sometimes followed today, so you should be aware of both.
In short, a masculine or stressed rhyme is one in which the rhyming syllable – or the final syllable of the rhyming word (if the rhyme extends over more than one syllable) – falls on a stress.
Examples of this include most one-syllable words (book/cook, dog/bog, and so on) and multi-syllable words like remain/explain (where the stress is on the final syllable).
A feminine or unstressed rhyme, by contrast, is one in which the rhyming syllable – or the final syllable of the rhyming word (if the rhyme extends over more than one syllable) – does not fall on a stress, or is in any case unstressed.
Examples of this include table/cable and willow/pillow (in both of which cases the stress falls on the penultimate, rather than the final syllable).
Not all (or even any) of a poem’s rhymes need come at the end of its lines, however. They can appear at any point whatsoever, although when they do they can only really be said to contribute to the fourth of the points ascribed to end rhymes on the previous page and help generate the poem’s ‘mood music.’ Like end-rhymes, though, these so-called ‘internal rhymes’ can also function to add extra definition and drama to both the formal and the semantic properties of individual lines. How they do this will vary from poem to poem – and sometimes line to line – but their capacity either to echo the sounds of the poem’s end rhymes or to introduce an alternative tune or musical pattern to the poem by picking up on other word-sounds resonating inside its lines can each be employed to uphold, diversify or even undermine the integrity of each end-rhyming line as a unit of meaning in its own right.
There are too many possible connotations any given set of internal rhymes might convey to list them all, but here are a few examples of what might be going on and what this might mean:
- if an internal rhyme chimes with a word at the end of its line, it to some degree foreshortens that line, making it feel either more intense or more cramped
- if an internal rhyme chimes with a word at the end of its line, which in turn answers (by rhyming with) an earlier line, its renders the rhyme at the end of its line all the more inevitable. This too can have positive or negative connotations: it can reinforce a sense of fate, for instance, or a sense of cliché or banality – of saying something expected rather than something imaginative or radical
- if an internal rhyme within one single line picks up on sounds that are not repeated at the end of the line, on the other hand, but that exist only within it, this necessarily alters the pace of the line’s usual progression towards its end, usually by slowing it down. This can variously reinforce the impact of the line’s end when it finally comes or it can operate as an open act of resistance against it (by registering, for instance, a reluctance to accept the conclusion or sense of inevitability it might represent)
- if an internal rhyme picks up on sounds contained in the middle of other lines and thus participates in an alternative musical pattern to that which is sounded at the end of each line, it invariably participates in a pattern of signification that is neither restricted to nor governed by the line as an independent or self-contained unit of meaning. What this alternative pattern signifies may well supplement the sense promoted by the poem’s practices of lineation, but it may also undermine it. Just as the line provides an alternative way of framing words and clusters of words from the clause and the sentence, so too might rhyme frame them differently from the line