I. Rhyme and Rhyme-Related Figures
Perhaps the most obvious figure (recurring pattern) of sound in poetry is rhyme. Rhyme is the repetition of the last stressed vowel sound and all the sounds that follow it in two or more words (e.g. earth – birth – worth, treasure – pleasure – leisure). It is very important that you clearly understand every element of this definition, because once you get this right, all the other rhyme-related figures (assonance, consonance, alliteration etc.) will be easy to understand. The most important elements are highlighted below with some examples:
the last stressed vowel sound: note that in English the stress does not necessarily fall on the first syllable of a word (like in Hungarian). Words that have a different number of syllables can therefore easily rhyme in English:
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
The words above – love rhyme in this
example although above consists of two syllables while love is
monosyllabic. This can happen because in a rhyme all that matters is that the last
stressed vowel sounds and what comes after them should match. What
comes before the last stressed vowel is not included in the rhyme. As
the word above has the stress on the second syllable, it can rhyme with love.
What is included in the rhyme is thus only what is italicised here: above
and love. Note that the consonants preceding the last stressed vowel do
not count either: what is included in the rhyme is not the last stressed
the last stressed vowel sound: rhyme is a repetition
of sounds, not of
I met a little cottage girl,
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That cluster’d round her head.
The words girl – curl and the words said – head rhyme even if they are spelt differently because the last stressed vowel and the sounds that follow it are pronounced alike.
Contrast this with the pair of words
For a Hungarian student of English poetry it is not always easy to identify the pronunciation of a word on the basis of the spelling. If you are in doubt the best thing you can do is consult a dictionary where the phonetic symbols will unambiguously identify the correct pronunciation of a word. In the case of the examples above you will find in your dictionary the following phonetic symbols:
said /sed/ – head /hed/
girl /gз:l/ – curl /kз:l/ where the last stressed vowel and the following sounds are the same; and
food /fu:d/ – flood /fld/ where the last stressed vowel is apparently different.
If you are uncertain about the pronunciation of a word in an exam situation, do not try to guess, ask your teacher.
all the sounds that follow: everything after
the last stressed vowel (including consonant and vowel sounds) must be the same
in the two rhyming words. If there is a difference in a single consonant we can
no longer speak of a rhyme, the two words will only be in assonance.
E.g. the words said – head form a rhyme, but the words
We can distinguish between two basic types of rhyme, masculine and feminine rhymes. In a masculine rhyme the last stressed vowel sound is in the last syllable of the rhyming words (e.g. said – head, extol – enrol, grey – today); while a feminine rhyme includes an unstressed syllable after the last stressed vowel sound (e.g. gaily – daily, daughter – water). In the following stanza you can find an example for both feminine and masculine rhymes:
In English poetry feminine rhymes are less frequent than masculine rhymes and they tend to have a playful effect. Even more rarely do rhymes include three or more syllables and if they do, the effect is invariably comic (NB. this is not the case in Hungarian poetry!).
Look at how Robert Browning uses feminine and three-syllable rhymes in his funny description of a corpulent and empty-headed mayor:
With the Corporation as he sat,
Looking little though wondrous fat;
Nor brighter was his eye, nor moister
Than a too-long-opened oyster,
Save when at noon his paunch grew mutinous
For a plate of turtle green and glutinous
See some further funny rhymes from Byron’s Don Juan.
Rhyming words usually appear at the end of the line (end-rhyme), but they can appear within the line, as well (internal rhyme). The most obvious and basic function of rhymes is to create a pleasing sound effect. The regular recurrence of sounds is always a source of pleasure for the ear. In addition, the choice of the sounds repeated in the rhymes can contribute to creating the tone and mood of the poem.
Look at how the internal rhymes function in Robert Browning’s ‘Marching Along’ and in Percy Shelley’s ‘The Cloud’. Whereas in the first case the short masculine rhymes create the effect of a military march, in the second the often feminine internal rhymes give a feeling of playful lightness and ease. See the poems.
Besides its contribution to tone and mood, rhyme also functions as an important structural device. The recurrence of sounds creates rhythm and this rhythm breaks down the flow of language in the poem to units. The most basic unit of poetry is the line and indeed the most obvious device to mark line-endings is rhyme. If you listen to a poem that uses rhymes you will easily be able to determine where the lines of the poem end even if you do not look at the printed form of the text just by perceiving the recurrence of certain sounds at the end of the lines. Rhyme, however, is not only used to divide lines but also to connect some of them together. Lines ending in rhyming words naturally belong together and thus rhymes can be used to create different patterns of lines (couplets, stanzas etc.), this way forming larger units in the poem.
Another function of rhymes is to highlight certain meanings. Words in rhyme position are naturally more emphatic than words within the line and thus rhyme is an important tool in the hands of the poet to draw attention to certain key words in the poem or to create associations between words appearing in rhyme position.
Look at how in William Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ the rhyming words ‘fair’, ‘wear’, ‘bare’, ‘air’ highlight and explain the fundamental paradox upon which the whole poem is based and how ‘steep’, ‘deep’ and ‘asleep’ belong together. See the poem with sample analysis.