Rhyme and Reason

Gwyneth Box

NB: The author is British and has based her comments about pronunciation on her own way of speaking. If your accent differs, you should still find the comments useful, but may need to make adjustments.
Full versions of the poems from which examples are taken can be read on the anthology page.

Recently, I've seen a lot of comment about rhyme and rhythm in poetry, and would like to contribute my two pennyworth to the debate.

Most people would accept that modern poetry frequently doesn't have the same rigid structure as the poems they learned by heart in school but there are differences of opinion about whether this is a good or bad thing. The perspectives range from those people who believe that anything not written in iambic pentameter with full end-rhymes (definitions later) isn't poetry, to those who feel that because recognised poets write in free verse without obvious form and structure 'anything goes'.

Perhaps it is this latter attitude that has most alienated the lovers of traditional poetry: they see text laid out as poetry but cannot recognise the patterns they are used to. But prose does not become poetry by simply changing its layout on the page, and, although not as obtrusive as in the past, rhyme and rhythm are two of the most important aspects of a text that mark it as poetry not prose.

Firstly, let's look at rhyme. We'll start with a few definitions:

The traditional type of rhyme, occuring on the last word or words of the line, is end-rhyme. Robert Louis Stevenson uses this in 'From a Railway Carriage':

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain

In fact here we can see two types of end-rhyme: plain and rain are masculine rhymes, strong, single-syllable rhymes that carry the final stress of the line, whereas witches and ditches are feminine rhymes: the final syllable of the line is unstressed and the rhyme needs to occur in the penultimate syllable as well.

Of course it is possible to find words which rhyme in more than two syllables, humorous and numerous for example, but this can begin to obtrude too much, particularly if the poem deals with a serious subject.

Although the above examples are full rhymes, Stevenson does include two couplets with half-rhymes (also known as slant rhyme or imperfect rhyme) in the poem:

Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing daisies!


And here is a mill, and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!

The last (unstressed) syllables of gazes and daisies are not identical, but are close enough not to grate on the ear, especially not when the poem is read at the galloping pace that it deserves. Personally, the rhyming of river and ever bothers me more, as the discrepancy occurs on the stressed syllables and, indeed, the last couplet of the poem. Even so, the fact is that the poem does use end-rhymes throughout.

Rhymes don't always have to occur at the ends of lines. Take this verse from Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll:

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

As well as the end-rhyme of the second and last lines, we have internal rhymes in the first and third line pairs two and through, and dead and head.

Another tool in rhyming poetry is assonance - memorably described by the Julie Waters character in Educating Rita as 'getting the rhyme wrong'. Here the stressed vowel sounds are the same, although the consonant sounds differ. The words gathering and brambles in the Stevenson poem both use the short A sound, as do tramp and stands which occur in the next line.

Pairs like home and phone, or syllable and miracle, are assonant rather than rhyming, but their use together is perfectly valid. This can either occur at line ends or within the line.

There's also consonance, which is like assonance, only with the consonant sounds the same. Words like paper, pauper, piper and popery would come into this category, as do many onomatopoeic expressions like snicker-snack, flip-flop and prittle-prattle.

Alliteration is another similar technique; it consists of repeating the consonant sounds at the start of words or stressed syllables. We can see its use in the second line of this couplet from Stevenson's poem:

Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;

Sometimes I have seen comments about rhyming poetry that only admit the concept of full end-rhymes and discount half-rhymes, assonance etc. This, I feel, is a very limited and limiting perspective.

Perhaps one of the most dangerous aspects of writing this kind of rhymed poetry is the need to twist the word order to make the rhyme come in the right place. The same is true of strict metre (see below). Language use has changed and continues to do so; what was acceptable, and indeed admirable, in the past is just not natural in the twenty-first century. Consider these lines from Robert Herrick's poem, To Daffodils:

Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray'd together, we
Will go with you along.

We will go with you along is contrived, and would hardly pass muster in a modern work, although many would consider Herrick's poem a classic.

Another problem with strict rhyme is the temptation to change a word to make rhyming it easier. Take, for example, a poem about your pet. If you're a cat-lover, you won't have much trouble in finding words to rhyme with cat. If your pet is a dog, however, life is tougher. It's very tempting to turn him into a hound or a mutt to make things easier, but is it valid? If we're joking we do sometimes use more formal vocabulary: mother becomes mater, washing becomes ablution, we wend our way and so on. But, outside the comic, each of these expressions has a connotation which we must remember: calling your chihuahua a hound just won't work.

You may choose not to write traditional rhyming poetry, perhaps because you see it as limiting, or perhaps you simply don't like it. Whatever your reasons, think before you throw the baby out with the bathwater. Don Paterson has said that 'rhyme always unifies sense. [...] it can trick a logic from the shadows where one would not otherwise have existed'.

Even a non-rhyming poem can, and perhaps should, make use of the some of the elements we have seen above. By choosing words with similar sounds - alliteration, half-rhymes, assonance and consonance - you can give your poetry a coherence which it would otherwise lack.

Now it's time to turn to metre. Again we'll start with a few definitions:

Word length can be measured in syllables. This refers to how a word is pronounced, not how it is written. Cat and catch both have one syllable. Safe is also monosyllabic, but cafe has two syllables. (That's why it is also written café - to show that the final e is to be pronounced.)

Any word in English with more than one syllable will have at least one stressed (emphasised) syllable. Water and pronounce are both two-syllable words, but their stress pattern is not the same: water is stressed on the first syllable, pronounce on the second.

Sometimes the stress moves according to the context of a word. Consider the word cigarette. It has three syllables, but where is the stress? At the beginning or at the end? If we say the word out of context, we probably stress the last syllable, but in the phrase 'a packet of cigarettes' many people will emphasise the first syllable.

Sometimes the stress pattern gives us information which we might have gleaned from written clues if we were reading. In the sentence 'Look at that blackbird!' if we are referring to the specific bird, Turdus Merula, called a blackbird (one word), the stress is on the word black; if we mean a bird which is black, but of unknown or unspecified species, (written as two words), we will stress both black and bird.

In fact, talking about syllables is only of limited use to us as English is what is called a stress-timed language. This means that different syllables take different lengths of time to say. Compare the phrases 'Go home' and 'I'm going home'. The first has two syllables and two stresses. It takes two 'beats' to say. The second has four syllables and two or three stresses depending on meaning. If it's a simple statement, perhaps in answer to the question 'Where are you going?', the stresses will fall on the first syllable of going and on the word home. The time taken to say the complete sentence will be the same as to simply say 'Go home'. If we emphasise the word I, as in 'You can do as you like, but I'm going home!' there will be an additional stress, and the phrase will take longer to say.

One last point about syllables and stresses is to mention the schwa sound. This sound corresponds to no single vowel, but occurs in many unstressed syllables. In fact it's one of the keys to speaking English like a native. If we couldn't make this sound we wouldn't be able to cram so many syllables into such a short time. It's a sort of relaxed, short grunt. It occurs in the final syllable of the words water, direction and infinite; in the first syllable of pronounce, attempt and suppose; it's the middle syllable of poetry, emphasis and currently. Sometimes it's used twice in the same word. In America, for example, it's there at the beginning and the end.

Sometimes a word will be pronounced with a schwa by some people, but that same syllable will disappear completely for others. The word different, for example. Does it have two or three syllables? Consider words like paddling, offering, shortening; do you pronounce the middle syllable? And what about words like wild and fire? Are they single syllables?

All of this is quite theoretical and you won't find it mentioned very often in books about writing as it's really from the point of view of phonology rather than literature. Despite this, it's useful background. If you begin to listen to how people speak, you stand a better chance of writing poetry that has natural rhythm.

We do need a few literary terms for metre, too. So let's start with foot - a unit of rhythm.

The first two lines of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky are written in iambic tetrameter: That means they have four feet (tetrameter) and the stress alternates between weak and strong (iambic).

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

The iambic metre or rising rhythm is the most common in English verse; it gives a di-dum di-dum effect, each di-dum being a foot. Five feet give us a pentameter. Shakespeare wrote his plays in unrhymed iambic pentameters (blank verse).

Of course you could start the line with a stressed sound and have dum-di (falling) rhythm. That would be trochaic metre. The start of John Donne's Song gives us an example:

Go, and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,

Notice that we have an odd number of syllables here - the final weak stress is omitted in both lines. The technical term for this type of line is catalectic.

There are, of course, other types of rhythm which rely on other combinations of stressed and non-stressed sounds. Thomas Hood's Bridge of Sighs, for example, starts with the verse:

One more Unfortunate
Weary of Breath
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Here we have one strong beat followed by two weak - a dactyl foot - although on the second and fourth lines the final weak sounds are omitted.

As this is only intended to be an introduction to metre, I shan't continue with more examples; this should have given you an idea of what metre is about.

There is a strong temptation when writing in a fixed metre to insert extra words or to change the words simply to maintain the rhythm. Neither of these is really the solution. Suppose you want to use the word cat, but need two beats. You could substitute feline if it's in a falling foot, but here you have the same problem of connotation and register that I mentioned when dealing with rhyme. Sometimes it will be appropriate, or with the help of a thesaurus you will find a suitable word with the right level of formality (tabby, perhaps?) but all too often the result will be contrived, and you'll be talking of dwellings not homes, fauna not animals and volumes instead of books. Which isn't to say that dwellings, fauna and volumes don't have a place. They do, but not simply to keep your rhythm pattern straight.

Another tempting insertion is the padding word. We have many verbs in English that can be followed by a preposition or adverb without changing the essential meaning. Eat and eat up are not radically different, nor are cut and cut up although the down in cut down does make slightly more difference to meaning. If you constantly included these extra words to force the rhythm to work, you are actually closer to playing a word game than to writing poetry.

The section above about syllable compression and the schwa sound gives another reason why insertion of words is not always a good idea. Compare the phrases

I've got a cat.


And I have got a cat.

In the first we have four syllables and two beats, the second six syllables, but still only two beats in normal speech. If we make the reader say it as six beats or three iambic feet, to fit in with the rhythm, the result will be so unnatural that the poem will seem forced.

Earlier on, included The Bridge of Sighs because it's a good example of how a tragic subject can become almost risible if written in heavily structured verse. Personally I love the poem, but it doesn't make me feel the tragedy of the suicide. Many traditional poems are hard to read seriously because of their constant rhythm and rhyme which create an unintentional comic effect which detracts from the subject. This is one reason for choosing not to adhere to a strict rhyme and rhythm scheme.

You may find that instead of following an exact formal metre, you can use different rhythmical patterns to create tension and interest for the reader. This technique is used even in old poems, for example use of a falling foot at the start of an otherwise iambic line is quite common. Alternatively, you may choose to write in free verse, which doesn't confrom to a regular rhythm structure.

The fact that many modern poets do write in free verse doesn't mean that they don't know what metre is, nor that they chop up the lines at random! We have already seen that rhyme is not simply about 'the cat sat on the mat' type combinations and rhythm, too, is a more complex subject than it seems at first. Even free verse may contain passages of traditional metre.

Each new poem offers you the opportunity to make a conscious decision about the form you are going to use. The same subject can change radically when dealt with in a different way. It is all too easy to think that abandoning formal structure gives you more freedom to express yourself when in fact you may find the discipline imposed by a formal meter and rhyme structure may bring out aspects of your writing that you weren't aware of.

Coleridge defined 'prose' as 'words in their best order, and 'poetry' as 'the best words in the best order'. This definition neither demands nor excludes the use of rhyme and rhythm. Instead, it suggests that from among the hundreds of possible combinations of words which convey an idea there is one phrase which is better than the others. The poet's task is to find that phrase.

One last comment: it's worth remembering that poetry needs to be read out loud to be fully appreciated. Although you hear the sounds in your head when you read silently, there is a tendency to skimp on concentration and assume things about the sounds, which are quite different in reality. Problems with rhythm and sound combinations are best resolved by reading and seeing whether you trip up on any part of the piece. That, of course, is from the writer's point of view. For the poetry reader, I still recommend reading out loud: it's the best way to enjoy the sounds and understand what the poet was trying to say.

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