“What is Rhyme in Poetry?”: A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers


I’m going to tell you the biggest secret
there is about rhymes. In poetry, the best rhymes…barely rhyme. They echo. If rhymes were images and not sounds, they’d
be like mirror images…but it’s a distorted mirror. A wavering reflection of a mirror. A wobbly reverberation of a sound. Now: We’ve all know what rhyming is, ever
since we heard our first nursery…rhyme. Baa, baa, black sheep
Have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full. One for the master,
And one for the dame, And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane. You know that WOOL and FULL rhyme. And so do DAME and LANE. Their a little off, a little slanted. But, think of dame and lane as echoes more
than rhymes. And that’s the secret. Rhymes are echoes. They’re more like close parallels of sounds,
and not always the exact sounds. Like echoes, the parallel sounds change a
little in the distance. They bend, they slant. The thing about English is, it’s not a great
language for rhyming, compared to other languages, like Italian, where so many words end in A
or I or O. In English, we even have words that are almost
impossible to make rhymes for: orange, silver, purple, ninth, wolf, dangerous, discombobulate. And so, in English poetry, where we define
rhyming as the repetition of syllables, typically at the end of a line, we organize those end
rhymes into patterns or schemes, called rhyme schemes. You’ve heard of them. A rhyme scheme is made of the pattern of end
rhymes in a stanza. That’s it. The rhyme scheme simply identifies the pattern. Nothing to it. It’s more like counting than listening. We identify or code those patterns with the
letters from the alphabet, from the letter a onward. Take the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s
Poem #320. It goes: There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons – That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes – We’d identify the end rhymes as Light/Heft
and Afternoons/Tunes. We’d code it: ABAB. I know you’re asking, LIGHT rhymes with
HEFT? In that stanza it does. Because HEFT is in the rhyming spot for LIGHT. More important, the rhyme is a road sign to
sense, to ambiguity, to new possible meanings. In this poem, in this stanza, LIGHT and HEFT
share special properties with each other. The idea of HEFT is an echo of the idea of
LIGHT. The light in line one in the poem, is airy,
but by line 3 in the poem, the light has become weighted. It has heft. The heft of Cathedral Tunes. And the two meanings, like the two words,
echo, light with heft. Check it out again. I’ll leave the interpretations to you. Once a poet makes a rhyme pattern, and sticks
with it, in a poem, then the cool thing is, they have the opportunity to mess around with
the sounds, to bend the echoes. Like LIGHT rhyming with HEFT. The sound of HEFT echoing LIGHT. Here’s what I mean. Blue rhymes with stew. Right? Now, in the right spot in a stanza at the
end of a line, blue can also be made to rhyme with baby. [The silent
“e” is “echoed” by the sound of “y.”] Blue can rhyme with blah. Blue can rhyme with glow, or stow, or claw. There are so many different kinds of rhymes,
non cat in the hat rhymes, that is. There are eye rhymes that only rhyme when
spelled out, like THROUGH and Rough. There are feminine rhymes that echo one or
more unstressed syllables, like “dicing” and “spicing.” On the other hand Masculine rhymes, as you
might have guessed, end in a stressed syllable, like “hells” and “bells.” You’ve got monorhyme…echoing the same
sound every single line in a poem. Lot of rap uses monorhyme. Light rhyme, half rhyme, rich rhyme, the list
goes on and on. And don’t forget my favorite: internal rhyme—that’s
rhyming not at the end of the line but in the middles, inside the line, or from line
to line. All these echoes. Close, or far, the sounds lead your ear to
the sense in your mid. It’s just a combination of letters and sounds
over here…echoing with a combination of letters and sounds over there. Because poetry has no accompaniment, like
lyrics in songs have music. Instead, poets have to make their own musical
echoes. The wavering, wobbly, reverberating echoes
of sounds make the rhymes go round.

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