A rhyme is a repetition of identical or similar terminal sounds in two or more different words and is most often used in poetry. Although most readers think of rhyme as one of the defining characteristics of poetry, in reality rhyme is a relatively new poetic technique. The ancient poetry of the Greeks and Romans did not rhyme, and in fact the earliest poetry of most European languages such as Old English and Old Frankish is unrhymed as well. In the West, rhyme only begins to emerge in poetry during the medieval period; several poems in Old Irish and one poem in Old English dating to roughly the seventh or eighth century are among the earliest examples of rhyming verse. By the late medieval ages rhyme had spread to become one of the most dominant features of Western verse (in other cultures, such as Chinese literature, rhyme can be traced back significantly farther into the past. However, in the case of Chinese, pronunciation has changed so dramatically over the centuries that many poems that once rhymed no longer do so).
For several hundred years following rhyme's emergence in the Middle Ages, Western poetry almost invariably rhymed, with occasional exceptions such as the blank verse of Marlowe or Shakespeare. However, beginning with the advent of free verse in the early twentieth century, poetry of all literatures (both Western and non-Western) began to move away from the traditions of rhyme. Although rhyme has recently begun to make a come-back, most poetry written today is either unrhymed or written in various forms of half-rhyme. Nonetheless, for any student of poetry, rhyme is a quintessential attribute of the literary tradition.
The word comes from the Old French rime, derived from the Old Frankish language *ri:m, a Germanic term meaning "series, sequence" attested in Old English and Old High German, ultimately cognate to the Old Irish rím, and the Greek ἀριθμός arithmos "number."
The spelling rhyme (for original rime) was introduced at the beginning of the Modern English period, due to a false cognate with the Greek ῥυθμός (rhythmos).
The older spelling rime survives in Modern English as a rare alternative spelling. A distinction between the spellings is also sometimes made in the study of linguistics and phonology, where rime/rhyme is used to refer to the nucleus and coda of a syllable. In this context, some prefer to spell this rime to separate it from the poetic rhyme covered by this article.
The earliest surviving evidence of rhyming is the Chinese Shi Jing (c. tenth century B.C.E.).
In Europe, the practice arose only with Late Antiquity. Irish literature introduced the rhyme to Early Medieval Europe; in the seventh century we find the Irish had brought the art of rhyming verses to a high pitch of perfection. From the twelfth to the twentieth centuries, European poetry was dominated by rhyme.
Types of rhyme
The word "rhyme" can be used in a specific and a general sense. In the specific sense, two words rhyme if their final stressed vowel and all following sounds are identical; two lines of poetry rhyme if their final strong positions are filled with rhyming words. A rhyme in the strict sense is also called a "perfect rhyme." Examples are sight and flight, deign and gain, madness and sadness.
Perfect rhymes can be classified according to the number of syllables included in the rhyme
- masculine: a rhyme in which the stress is on the final syllable of the words. (rhyme, sublime, crime)
- feminine: a rhyme in which the stress is on the penultimate (second from last) syllable of the words. (picky, tricky, sticky)
- dactylic: a rhyme in which the stress is on the antepenultimate (third from last) syllable ('cacophonies," "Aristophanes")
In the general sense, "rhyme" can refer to various kinds of phonetic similarity between words, and to the use of such similar-sounding words in organizing verse. Rhymes in this general sense are classified according to the degree and manner of the phonetic similarity:
- imperfect: a rhyme between a stressed and an unstressed syllable. (wing, caring)
- semirhyme: a rhyme with an extra syllable on one word. (bend, ending)
- oblique (or slant): a rhyme with an imperfect match in sound. (green, fiend)
- consonance: matching consonants. (her, dark)
- half rhyme (or sprung rhyme) is consonance on the final consonants of the words involved
- assonance: matching vowels. (shake, hate)
In a perfect rhyme the last stressed vowel and all following sounds are identical in both words. If this identity of sound extends further to the left, the rhyme becomes more than perfect. An example of such a "super-rhyme" is the "identical rhyme," in which not only the vowels but also the onsets of the rhyming syllables are identical, as in gun and begun. Punning rhymes such as "bare" and "bear" are also identical rhymes. The rhyme may of course extend even further to the left than the last stressed vowel. If it extends all the way to the beginning of the line, so that we have two lines that sound identical, then it is called "holorhyme" ("For I scream/For ice cream").
The last type of rhyme is the sight (or eye) rhyme or similarity in spelling but not in sound, as with cough, bough, or love, move. These are not rhymes in the strict sense, but often were formerly. For example, "sea" and "grey" rhymed in the early eighteenth century, though now they would make at best an eye rhyme.
The preceding classification has been based on the nature of the rhyme; but we may also classify rhymes according to their position in the verse:
- tail rhyme (or end): a rhyme in the final syllable(s) of a verse (the most common kind)
- When a word at the end of the line rhymes within a word in the interior of the line, it is called an internal rhyme.
- Holorhyme has already been mentioned, by which not just two individual words, but two entire lines rhyme.
A rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhyming lines in a poem.
Rhyme in English
Old English poetry is mostly alliterative verse. One of the earliest rhyming poems in English is "The Rhyming Poem," found in the Exeter Book. Beginning with Chaucer, rhyme began to become a defining characteristic of English poetry. English literature is somewhat unique among European literatures, however, because of its periodic regression to unrhymed blank verse: most famously, in the Elizabethan period the dramatic poetry of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and other playwrights almost never rhymed. Nonetheless, by the eighteenth-century English poetry was so dominated by rhyme that some students of English literature today disregard eighteenth-century English poetry entirely, solely on the basis of its incessant rhymes. Unrhymed blank verse reappeared in the nineteenth century with the long poems of William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, and again several decades later in the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson.
By the twentieth century, rhyme began to fall out of favor in English poetry, replaced either by blank verse (as in the works of Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens) or entirely free verse (as in the works of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound). Nonetheless, throughout the twentieth century. some notable poets such as Robert Frost and Robert Graves continued to use rhyme; by the close of the twentieth century, free verse had begun to give way again to New Formalism, and many young English poets today utilize rhyme.
The most famous brief remark in English on rhyme may be John Milton's preface to Paradise Lost, which begins:
- THE Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac't indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom...
Rhyme in French
In French poetry, unlike in English, it is common to have "identical rhymes," in which not only the vowels of the final syllables of the lines rhyme, but their onset consonants ("consonnes d'appui") as well. To the ear of someone accustomed to English verse, this often sounds like a very weak rhyme. For example, an English perfect rhyme of homophones flour and flower, would seem weak, whereas a French rhyme of homophones doigt and doit is not only common but quite acceptable.
Rhymes are sometimes classified into the categories "rime pauvre" ("poor rhyme"), "rime suffisante" ("sufficient rhyme"), "rime riche" ("rich rhyme") and "rime richissime" ("very rich rhyme"), according to the number of rhyming sounds in the two words. For example to rhyme "parla" with "sauta" would be a poor rhyme (the words have only the vowel in common), to rhyme "pas" with "bras" a sufficient rhyme (with the vowel and the silent consonant in common), and "tante" with "attente" a rich rhyme (with the vowel, the onset consonant, and the coda consonant with its mute "e" in common). The authorities disagree, however, on exactly where to place the boundaries between the categories.
Here is a holorime (an extreme example of rime richissime spanning an entire verse):
- Gall, amant de la Reine, alla (tour magnanime)
- Gallamment de l'Arène à la Tour Magne, à Nîmes.
- Gallus, the Queen's lover, went (a magnanimous gesture)
- Gallantly from the Arena to the Great Tower, at Nîmes.
Alphonse Allais was a notable exponent of holorime.
Classical French rhyme is similar to English rhyme only in its different treatment of onset consonants. It also treats coda consonants in a peculiarly French way.
French spelling includes many final letters that aren't enunciated. In truth, these were once pronounced, and in Classical French versification these silent final "sounds" cause a number of very unusual complications in the rules of French poetics.
The most important "silent" letter is the "mute e." In spoken French today, this silent "e" is entirely silent; but in Classical French prosody, it was considered an integral part of the rhyme even when following the vowel. "Joue" could rhyme with "boue," but not with "trou." Rhyming words ending with this silent "e" were said to make up a "feminine rhyme," while words not ending with this silent "e" made up a "masculine rhyme." It was a principle of stanza formation that masculine and feminine rhymes had to alternate in the stanza.
The "silent" final consonants present a more complex case. They, too, were considered an integral part of the rhyme, so that "pont" could rhyme only with "vont" not with "long"; but this cannot be reduced to a simple rule about the spelling, since "pont" would also rhyme with "rond" even though one word ends in "t" and the other in "d." This is because the correctness of the rhyme depends not on the spelling on the final consonant, but on how it would have been pronounced. There are a few simple rules that govern word-final consonants in French prosody:
- The consonants must "rhyme," regardless of voicing. So: "d" and "t" rhyme because they differ only in voicing. So too with "g" and "c," and "p" and "b," and also "s" and "z" (and "x") (rhyming words ending with a silent "s" "x" or "z" are called "plural rhymes").
- Nasal vowels rhyme no matter what their spelling ("Essaim" can rhyme with "sain," but not with "saint" because the final "t" counts in "saint").
- If the word ends in a consonant cluster, only the final consonant counts ("Temps" rhymes with "lents" because both end in "s").
All of this stems from the fact that the letters that are now silent used to be sounded in Old French. These rhyming rules are almost never taken into account from the twentieth century on. Still, they apply to almost all of pre-twentieth-century French verse. For example, all French plays in verse of the seventeenth century alternate masculine and feminine alexandrines.
- AskOxford: Rhyme, Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved August 13, 2007.
- Fenton, James. An Introduction to English Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. ISBN 0374104646
- Lang, Peter. Onward: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. ISBN 0820430323
- Wesling, Donald. The Chances of Rhyme: Device and Modernity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980. ISBN 0520038614
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