What does the expression “without rhyme or reason” tell us about rhyme? It seems to me to mean that, along with reason, it is one of two valid alternative modes of expression, at least in poetry.
Let us consult the excellent J. A. Cuddon’s “Literary Terms and Literary Theory,” which tells us that it is “the formalized consonance of syllables . . . which probably originated in prehistoric ritual, but only in the last millennium has it come to dominate verse architecture.” Cuddon died in 1996, but the fourth, and to my knowledge last, edition, revised by C. E. Preston, came out in 1998, and the following year as a Penguin paperback. Though admirable, his discussion of rhyme may not be totally up-to-date.
Poetry went its merry unrhymed way until circa AD 200, in North African Church Latin. rhyme appeared and was duly popularized by the wandering scholars, drinkers and womanizers, the so-called “vagantes,” in the Middle Ages, with their rhymed Latin verse. This we now know best from the “Carmina Burana,” a selection set to music by Carl Orff. The word rhyme itself comes from the Provencal “rim,” whence the still extant version “rime,” mostly superseded by the rh spelling, derived by faulty analogy from the Greek “rhythmos.”
Before that, much splendid lyric poetry, say, by Sappho in Greek and Catullus in Latin, and not forgetting the epic of Homer and Virgil, depended solely on meter or rhythm. To my mind, or ear, rhyme is much missed, as in modern times it has been much abandoned for blank verse (iambic pentameter—five accented syllables to five or more unaccented ones to a verse i.e., line) and free verse, about which more anon.
Full rhyme means identical consonants after a repeated vowel, e.g., book/nook or glide/deride. Which when the rhyming sound is monosyllabic is called masculine, when bisyllabic, e.g. barber/harbor, feminine. Clearly monosyllabic sounds harder than bi- or disyllabic. There is also triple rhyme, as in gratitude/platitude, but that is somewhat ponderous and relatively rare. There is also rhyme where the consonant before the rhyming vowel is identical, as in bled/fled, known as “rime riche,” the French term, because it is considered okay in French versification but, for some reason, frowned upon in English.
There is also something known as half-, slant-, or near-rhyme, as in gender/hinder or helping/scalping or Cerberus/barbarous, which, however, should be used in moderation, except, say, in Hungarian, where pure rhyme is hard to come by.
There exist also cousins of rhyme, first of all assonance, where a vowel is repeated e.g., sodden condom or thrilling visits. Next, alliteration, where a consonant is repeated, as in rightly remembered rituals or warmly welcomed wanderers.
Rhyme can be especially seductive within a single verse between middle and end, e.g., “I often heard a saucy word/ From cheeky tots who dreamt up plots,” known as leonine rhyme, named after twelfth-century Canon Leo of St. Victor’ Church in Paris, who practiced it in Latin. But this can become tiresome in overuse.
Finally, there is such a thing as eye rhyme, existing only for the eye and not the ear, as in wind (the noun) and blind or rather/blather. As a joke, there is also the holorhyme, with entire verses rhyming, as in (sorry I can’t think of an English one) “Par les bois du djinn ou s’entasse de l’effroi/ Parle et bois du gin ou cent tasses de laid froid’ or (one I have previously quoted) “Gall, amant de la reine, alla, tour magnanime,/ Gallament de l’Arene a la Tour Magne a Nimes.” (Please excuse my lack the requisite accent marks.)
It is time now to ask the basic question: of what use or appeal is rhyme?
There is obviously the harmonious musical effect: the symmetry as of two ears or eyebrows, or of two windows and doors to a room, the fit as of a lid on a box—the sense of brief, momentary
closure, but closure nevertheless. This regardless of whether the rhyme scheme of a quatrain (four-verse stanza) is, in order of frequency, abab, abba, or aabb. Take, for instance, this quatrain by Swinburne:
And the best and the worst of this is
That neither is most to blame,
If you have forgotten my kisses
And I have forgotten your name.
Surely this is superior to, say, “Your forgetting my kisses is no worse than my forgetting your name, both equally good and bad.”
Or take the opening quatrains of “A Little Music,” by the now undeservedly forgotten Humbert Wolfe:
Since it is evening
let us invent
What shall we steer by
having no chart
but the deliberate
fraud of the heart?
Could that be equaled by any version, similarly in two stanzas, but without the rhyme? You try to do it.
Now let us return to Cuddon: “Particular degrees, types, or positions of rhyme have reasonably particular consequences (though poets are of course always as likely to try to work against the grain). Full rhyme will tend to harmonize with or confirm the sense, while half-rhyme will tend to dissonance or interrogation of the sense . . . . The greater the proximity of rhymes, the greater the acceleration they induce . . . . Such things, of course, bring word effects closer to music.”
But they also have other uses, prominent among them being memorization. It is much easier to remember a rhyming text than an unrhymed one. If you can recall a verse of a rhyming poem, it will most likely conjure up the rhyming next verse. Any public recitalist, or, for that matter, almost any actor, will confirm this mnemonic aid.
Consider, next, the usefulness of rhyme to the traditional poet. He or she, having written one compelling single verse may well wonder where to go next. As words rhyming with the extant verse defile through the memory, you are quite likely to hit on one that elicits some kind of response, some kind of continuation. Thus “heart” may call forth something ending in “part”; “love” may lead to an eye rhyme like “move,” or to a half-rhyme like “of,” if not to a pure rhyme like “above.” The outcome may be in debt to the poet’s unconscious, but then that is where so much poetry originates anyway.
Consider now Robert Frost’s famous dictum that poetry without rhyme is like tennis without a net. There is at least some truth in that, although even Frost has written poems that don’t rhyme, though they do the next-best thing: use blank verse. We need only Shakespeare to remind us how potent blank verse can be, even if rather more so in drama than in poetry. But much modern poetry goes well beyond blank verse, to free verse. Cuddon dates somewhat when he asserts that “prescribed rhyme schemes have often been disavowed, but rhyme has remained a feature of much elite poetry, and continues to dominate popular verse.”
That no longer obtains. I don’t know what he means by “popular verse,” about which he may be right, but not so about most “elite poetry.” The prescribed rhyme schemes of course refer to such forms as ballade, triolet, sestina , villanelle, pantun, and what have you, and those have indeed lost their popularity. With one exception, however, the sonnet, whether in Petrarch’s or Shakespeare’s version. What accounts for its stubborn survival? I would guess that it has historically proved a favorite form of love poetry, love in all its aspects, including failure. If easy sex were to completely oust love, the sonnet would follow it into the grave, like Good Deeds to Everyman. But why the indisputable predominance of free verse?
Free verse is definable as lines of any length whatever, freely varied, and differing from prose mostly through line breaks that occur wherever it pleases the poet. We owe this, to my mind, less than felicitous development largely but not exclusively to Walt Whitman, a rather poor poet in my estimation. But we owe it also to freedom of so many kinds, some of them welcome, and a general rejection of so many kinds of restriction, some regrettable. Even the habiliments of poets have changed: compare a picture of Rupert Brooke with one of (gulp) John Ashbery.
And then there is also democracy, freedom of speech, and why not couch poetry in prose. It needs only to rely on more tropes or symbols, more rhythm, and perhaps a little cadence. There is even such a legitimate thing as the prose poem (about which, as it happens, I wrote my doctoral thesis). This fairly popular genre depends on some brevity and concision, requiring a certain shapeliness and point to be intensely made, and achieving justified closure before prolixity sets in.
Finally, though, what characterizes the free verse poet when successful is a strong, individual, perhaps even unbridled imagination. Unfortunately, that is also what makes so much contemporary poetry far-fetched, opaque, uncommunicative. Rhyme has a way of acting as a bridge to comprehension, a parapet rather than a precipice. Don’t let it, like the dodo, die out completely.