Rhyme is something that is intrinsically linked with poetry. More than likely, rhyming lines of verse are what would come into your head if someone asked you to think of a poem. This is part of their allure.
Rhymed lines, especially when those rhymes are done well, and don’t take away from the overall meaning of the poem, are a pleasure to read. They give a poem a musical quality that speaks to the origins of the art form, as songs 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.
Explore Rhyming in Poetry
Often poets have sought to connect their poems to a larger tradition. 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 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 encouraged, 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.
Are there different kinds of rhyme?
Absolutely, first though, let’s consider another reason why poets use rhyme at all, and its relationship to meter. When a poet chooses not to use meter, rhyme is often there to create a rhythm. This can be through full, perfect rhymes at the end of lines, but also through slant, or half, rhymes. These are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse.
For an example of a poem that makes use of full and half rhymes, lets 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.
Do poems always need to rhyme?
No, definitely not. When you think about unrhymed poetry, you are likely thinking about a form known as free verse. These kinds of 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, important to note that while free verse is liberated from meter, there are elements of form. Many poets have spoken on the difficulties of writing in this style, as the lack of limitations is often a limitation in itself.
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 an example, lets take a look at the last stanza 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!
In these lines there is no rhyme, but there are elements of repetition, assonance, and consonance. These features help hold the lines together.
Walt Whitman is another poet who is known today as one of the popularizers 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 and 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?)
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 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 provides other problems for poets as well. Often times 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.