The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Rhyme: Broadly, a correspondence or echoing of similar sounds in words; more specifically, the repetition of identical vowel sounds in the stressed syllables of two or more words, as well as of all subsequent sounds. When most people speak of words as rhyming, they are referring to a specific type of rhyme — perfect rhyme — and, indeed, to a specific type of perfect rhyme — true, or full, rhyme, in which the initial sound of the stressed syllable in the rhyming words differs. Seventeenth-century English poet John Milton’s definition of rhyme as “the jingling sound of like endings” describes rhyme of this sort. Thus, bard / lard / shard / marred are true rhymes, as are thinking / drinking / shrinking. But bard / barred and board / bored are not; nor are bard / hoard or even bard / beard / board. These latter word sets are examples of rime riche and half rhyme, respectively. In rime riche, the second type of perfect rhyme, all sounds in the stressed syllable as well as all subsequent sounds are identical. In half rhyme, words contain similar sounds but do not rhyme exactly. Half rhyme typically results from consonance or assonance, similarities in consonant and vowel sounds, respectively. When words appear to rhyme based on their spelling but sound completely different when pronounced — as in dough / tough — no rhyme exists; rather, this phenomenon is labeled eye rhyme.

Perfect rhyme may further be classified as masculine or feminine. A masculine rhyme involves one stressed syllable, as in the pair low / blow or toe / below. A feminine rhyme has one stressed syllable followed by one or more identical unstressed syllables, as in the double rhyme shatter / splatter or the triple rhyme clattering / flattering. Some critics would argue that, although perfect rhyme may be masculine, not all masculine rhyme is perfect; masculine rhyme, they would maintain, may involve half rhyme (care / core) or even eye rhyme (how / low).

Finally, rhyme may be classified according to its placement within a poetic line or lines. Rhyme can occur at the end of two or more lines (end rhyme), within a line (internal rhyme, including leonine rhyme), or at the beginning of two or more lines (beginning rhyme).

Rhyme should be distinguished from rhythm, which refers generally to the measured flow of words in a passage or work and signifies a basic (though often varied) beat or pattern in language established by pauses and stressed and unstressed syllables. First, rhyme is generally limited to poetic works, whereas rhythm is a feature of both prose and poetry. Second, critics generally agree that rhythm, unlike rhyme, is an indispensable element of poetry. Of course, poets often use rhyme to establish or intensify the rhythm of a poem and to help structure a given passage or work. A poet’s rhyme scheme, or pattern of rhymes, for instance, may delineate stanzas and unify the poem as a whole through its recurrent regularity. To emphasize the distinction between rhyme and rhythm, some critics have suggested returning to an older spelling of rhyme: rime.

Rhyme has long been a popular poetic tool, especially of Romance- and English-language poets. It does not, however, usually appear in ancient poetic works; while it was used in Chinese poetry such as the Shi Jing (Classic of Poetry) (written eleventh to sixth centuries B.C.; published c. 600 B.C.), it does not generally appear in the works of classical Greece or Rome or those written in Sanskrit or Hebrew. Some scholars have theorized that the absence of rhyme can be traced to the nature of the ancient languages of these cultures. The fewer syllables that follow a word’s final, accented syllable, the easier rhyming becomes. Can, for instance, is more easily rhymed than canister. Many ancient languages tended to be suffixal rather than prefixal — that is, to follow the root with numerous syllables rather than preceding it — hence making rhyming more difficult. English, by contrast, is a prefixal language, which may account for the greater development of rhyme in English-language poetry. Romance languages such as Italian and Spanish rhyme even more readily.

Some scholars have suggested that the origin of rhyme as we know it lies in the early Christian Church and, more specifically, in the African church Latin that developed after the time of the theologian Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus) (c. A.D. 160—230). Later, priests throughout Europe began introducing rhyme in order to make long passages of liturgy easier to listen to and remember. By the fourth century A.D., key liturgical readings and responses had evolved into rhymed poems; some of these, such as the “Stabat Mater” and “Dies Irae,” are familiar to churchgoers today. During the Middle Ages, hymns were composed that combined assonance and consonance, alliteration and end rhyme, and during the Middle English Period more specifically, rhymed verse came to prevail over the alliterative pattern characteristic of Old English poetry.

The trend in the twentieth century was toward dispensing with rhyme, or at least minimizing its use. Notably, unrhymed verse written in English dates at least as far back as the sixteenth century, when blank verse (broadly defined, any unrhymed verse, but usually referring to unrhymed iambic pentameter) first appeared. As the use of true rhyme declined, forms such as half rhyme became increasingly popular, but were also eclipsed as nonrhyming free verse became the dominant means of poetic expression. Today, in the twenty-first century, few poets compose using rhyme, at least of the conventional kind.