When most people imagine poetry they likely think of the complex rhyme schemes that poets create to structure their work. Poetry is linked to rhyme, whether contemporary writers, who are often apt to toss traditional rhyme schemes out, like it or not. So, why do some writers choose to make their poems rhyme while others don’t? In this article, we’ll go over everything from why rhyming is important to types of rhymes, how to choose one, and why poets sometimes decide to use unrhymed lines in their poetry.
Everything You Need To Know About Poetry Rhyming
Why is Rhyming Important?
Rhymed lines are a pleasure to read. They give a poem a musical quality that speaks to the origins of the art form, as songs that were sung aloud, marking important occasions or chronically historical events.
Over centuries of poetic writing, rhyme has been used to convey every tone from pleasure to pain, and every mood from derision to indulgence. Sometimes the rhyme in the poem tells the reader more about the poet than the work itself. Today, rhyme schemes are less commonly used than they used to be. More often than not, contemporary poems do not use a rhyme scheme, unless they’re written for children. But, that certainly isn’t universal and definitely does not mean that poets have decided to drop rhyme altogether.
Historical Importance of Rhyme Schemes
The historical importance of rhyme schemes, and the contextual connections poets can create through their use, are some of the many reasons why someone might today, or in the past, have chosen to use a rhyme scheme. Poets are often fond of connecting their poems to a larger tradition through the structure they choose. For example, sonnets which conform to the historical patterns of Petrarch or Shakespeare, or the Spenserian verse form. The latter is characterized by nine-line stanzas. The first eight are in iambic pentameter, and then the final is an “alexandrine” or a line of iambic hexameter. The stanzas also followed a pattern ABABBCBCC, it was made famous by the poet Edmund Spenser in his epic, The Faerie Queen.
In ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ by John Keats, the poet chose to make use of the 42 Spenserian stanzas. He would’ve been very aware of, and want to encourage, the connections this drew between his work and Spenser’s. Here is the first stanza from ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ to consider.
St. Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.
Keats chose to change the indention in the last line, in order to draw greater attention to the change in meter. In some stanzas, this change is more important than others.
Read more of John Keats’s poetry.
There are numerous other possible poetic structures that writers might choose to use. For example, blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, which when used in poetry draws connections to some of the greatest poets of all time, including William Shakespeare. As an example, take a look at these lines from the ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow‘ speech from Macbeth:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death …
Or, a writer might choose to use ballad or hymnal stanzas, such as those used by Emily Dickinson (for example, the first stanza of ‘Because I could not stop for death.’ Some other possibilities are listed below.
Types of Rhymes
Throughout the history of poetic writing, poets have come up with some incredibly interesting rhyme schemes, and various types of rhymes. Some of these are still used today and others were used once, and fit perfectly for one piece of poetry but not for any other. Often, as mentioned above, poets create a rhyme scheme in order to reference a historically important piece of poetry. But, more often, they use rhyme in order to emphasize certain elements of their own writing. As poetry has developed, writers have used different types of rhymes in order to create certain effects. These include full rhymes or those readers are likely most familiar with, as well as half-rhymes, and internal rhymes.
- Full rhyme: also known as a perfect rhyme. These rhymes share the same number of syllables and the same assonance.
- Half-rhyme: also known as slant, imperfect, and near rhyme. This rhyme is formed by words that are not identical but are similar, in assonance and/or the number of syllables.
- Internal rhyme: rhymes that appear in the middle of lines rather than at the end of lines.
- Masculine rhyme: a rhyme between the final stressed syllables of two lines.
- Feminine rhyme: a multi-syllable rhyme where stressed and unstressed syllables rhyme. For example, the words “measles” and “weasels.”
- Eye rhyme: words that look like they’re going to rhyme but don’t when they’re spoken or read. For example, “hour” and “pour.”
- End rhymes: rhymes that occur between the final words on two lines of poetry. They can be feminine or masculine.
Let’s also consider another reason why poets use rhyme at all and its relationship to the meter. When a poet chooses not to use meter, rhyme provides the rhythm. This can be through full, perfect rhymes at the end of lines, but also through slant or half, rhymes.
For an example of a poem that makes use of full and half-rhymes, let’s take a look at Charlotte Brontë’s ‘I now had only to retrace’. It is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines or quatrains. Each of these quatrains is structured with a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of ABAB, changing end words as Brontë saw fit from stanza to stanza. Here are the first two stanzas:
I now had only to retrace
The long and lonely road
So lately in the rainbow chase
With fearless ardour trod
Behind I left the sunshine now
The evening setting sun
Before, a storm rolled dark & low
Some gloomy hills upon
Immediately a reader can tell that these lines are very well structured. They appear to be around the same length, contain similar numbers of syllables, and follow that very simple ABAB rhyme scheme. But if you look closer at the first stanza you can see that lines two and four are half-rhymes, rather than full, perfect rhymes. The words “road” and “trod” connect only because of their similarity in the “d” consonant sound.
Read more of Charlotte Brontë’s poetry.
Types of Rhyme Schemes
Here are a few of the most commonly used and interesting types of rhyme schemes:
- Petrarchan/Italian Sonnet: uses iambic pentameter and rhymes ABBAABBA with possible ending sestets which include CDCDCD and CDECDE. For example, John Milton‘s ‘When I Consider How My Light is Spent’ and these 10 Famous Petrarcahn Poems.
- Shakespearean Sonnet: uses iambic pentameter and rhymes ABABCDCDEFEFGG. For example, ‘Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day‘ by William Shakespeare.
- Ballade: contains three stanzas and uses the rhyme scheme ABABBCBC.
- Monorhyme: every line uses the same rhyme scheme, AAAA, etc.
- Alternate Rhyme: the first and third lines of a stanza rhyme and the second and fourth lines rhyme, ABAB. This is used in poems with four or eight-line stanzas. For example, the first lines of ‘Neither Out Far not in Deep‘ by Robert Frost.
- Limerick: a five-line poem that uses the rhyme scheme AABBA.
- Villanelle: a nineteen-line poem that rhymes A1bA2, abA1, abA2, abA1, abA2, abA1A2. For example, ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song‘ by Sylvia Plath
- Terza Rima: uses sets of three lines and an interlocking rhyme scheme of ABA CBC CDC DED. Famously used in Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy.’
- Enclosed rhyme: uses a rhyme scheme of ABBA.
- Triplet: uses a rhyme scheme of AAA in sets of three. For example, ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes‘ by Robert Herrick.
- Couplet: uses a rhyme scheme of AA in sets of two. For example, ‘A Poison Tree‘ by William Blake.
- Keats’ Odes rhyme: follows a pattern of ABABCDECDE. For example, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn‘ by John Keats.
How to Choose/Create Rhyme Schemes
As you likely already know, there is an almost endless number of rhyme schemes to choose from when one is writing a poem. This is something that can feel both exciting and intimidating. The listed poems and possible rhyme schemes above are a great starting point but they are by no means the only possible rhymes that one might use in their poem.
When trying to decide which rhyme scheme is right for a poem you’ve written, the most important things to consider are the effect you want the piece to have on the reader and which parts of the poem are the most important. You’re going to want to choose a rhyme scheme that emphasizes the latter and adds to the overall tone of the poem. You would not choose a sing-song-like rhyme scheme, like an alternate rhyme scheme, for a dark poem about themes of depression or death. A poem like this would be more suited to the rhyme scheme of a villanelle or enclosed rhyme.
Do Poems Always Need Rhyme Schemes?
No, definitely not. When you think about unrhymed poetry, you are likely thinking about a form known as free verse. These poems do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Free verse is most commonly used in modern and contemporary writing. It is useful when a writer is seeking to mimic natural speech patterns.
Additionally, it’s important to note that while free verse is liberated from meter, there are formal elements present in these poems. Many poets have spoken on the difficulties of writing in this style, as the lack of limitations is often a limitation in itself.
Examples of Free Verse Poems
The Return by Ezra Pound
Free verse originated from a French form known as “vers libre”. But it was popularized by writers such as Ezra Pound. His writings contain some of the best examples of what the form can accomplish. For example, let’s take a look at the last stanza of his poem ‘The Return’.
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.
Slow on the leash,
pallid the leash-men!
Walt Whitman is another poet who is known today as the father of the free verse style. His long, emotional, and spiritual poems often appear on the page as paragraphs of text, rather than short structured lines of verse. But even Whitman, who clearly valued content over structure used poetic techniques to increase the unity, and create an underlying rhythm in his poems.
Let’s look at the first half of the question portion of ‘O Me! O Life!’ as an example of how his long lines come together to tell a story. In these lines, a reader will also notice his use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession.
Oh me! Oh life! the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Whitman’s verse is naturally poetic. He speaks on topics close to readers’ hearts and ensures that the poem feels rhythmic through his word choice. These are just as valid decisions to make as any selection of a rhyme scheme.
Why Do Some Poets Use Unrhymed Lines?
Let’s go through a few of the many reasons why poets choose not to rhyme their poems. More than anything else, rhyme provides poems a consistent structure. But, sometimes a poet needs to break out of a structure in order to get a specific message or emotion across. Rhyme can end up getting in the way if a poet’s speaker needs to express a powerful, unrestrained emotion.
Another reason, as mentioned above, is that a lack of rhyme within lines allows a writer to convey normal speech patterns. This makes characters, especially within narrative poetry, feel sincere and more believable.
The structure of rhyme schemes and metrical patterns creates other problems for poets as well. Often, as writers are trying to conform to a specific pattern, they have to make different word choices than they might’ve otherwise. This can distract from the intended meaning of a text and take away from the impact of the images and symbols the poet has crafted.