There are those who believe that rhyme is the whole of poetry, and others, only slightly more knowledgable, who believe that poetry should, under no circumstances, rhyme. Both view are false. Japanese poetry does not rhyme; Chinese poetry does. Normally, Arabic poetry does not rhyme, though Arabic prose sometimes does, and some very ancient Arabic poetry does as well. The poetry of ancient Greece and Rome did not, though they used complex forms in a wide variety of meters. Old Germanic poetry did not, though it used alliteration in a way just as stylized. Medieval lyric and epic, however, did. Blank verse was a Rennaisance innovation, and did not become dominant for narrative until a century after Milton. Twentieth century poetry is generally though of as unrhymed, though many important modern poets have and do use rhyme--William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, and Dylan Thomas. I will show both some of the value of rhyme, and some of the reasons it is so often viewed unfavorably.
First, are there actually six levels of rhyme? Why so many? Why so few? Is this ultimate fact, or merely my own personal scheme of things? We will see. Or, maybe we won't. In any case, what I call the first level, I give the name "desperate rhyme." This is the level of the absolute beginner, though some may continue to write at this level for a long time. Here the writer is eager to catch onto any word which has a similar ending to the one he has already used. Verse is hard work; therefore, he feels justified in the strangest alterations of grammar, syntax, even pronunciation. Excursions from the subject, if not too long, are permissible to provide a rhyme. The sacrifice of stronger lines for feebler ones is an unfortunate, but frequent necessity. Such poems say very little, and nothing exactly; everything has been sacrificed, or at least compromised in the effort to put the structure together. Many freshmen poems and poems in small town newspapers are at this level.
The most successful poet of this level, at least in America, was Julia A. Moore, the "sweet singer of Michigan," who had a great vogue in the mid-nineteenth century. Her specialty was dead or dying children. Here are some stanzas from "Hattie House." I will spare you the whole poem:
Come all kind friends wherever you may be,
Come listen to what I say,
It's of a little girl that was pleasant to see,
And she died while out of doors at play.
Those little girls will not forget
The day little Hattie died,
For she was with them when she fell in a fit,
While playing by their side.
She was her parents' only child,
And her age was near six years,
And she has left them for a while--
Left all her friends in tears.
It is a general rule that a parody needs to be more proficient than the original. Emmeline Grangerford's "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots Dec'd," from Huckleberry Finn is not only better, but a better illustration of desperate rhyme.
And did young Stephen sicken,
And did young Stephen die?
And did the sad hearts thicken,
And did the mourner's cry?
No; such was not the fate of
Young Stephen Dowling Bots;
Though sad hearts round him thickened,
'Twas not from sickness' shots.
No whooping cough did rack his frame,
Nor measles drear, with spots;
Not these impared the sacred name
Of Stephen Dowling Bots.
Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach trouble laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots.
O no. Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this sad world fly,
By falling down a well.
They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.
This is, of course, smoother and more proficient than most such poetry, but the fourth stanza is a good illustration of the kind. Measles is not a common cause of death, but the writer needs the word "spots" to rhyme with "Bots," being under the unfortunate illusion this it is a good thing to rhyme on names. The third line, "Not these impared the sacred name," notice, is merely a filler to pad out the stanza. This stanza manages a double rhyme, but at the expense of the nonsense of measles or whooping cough "imparing the sacred name," rather than simply "making sick." The absurd "sacred" is necessary for the meter.
In the next stanza, the search for rhymes with "Bots" becomes even more desperate:
Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots.
Love whacking one on the head is a dubious image, and the degree of curl is beside the point, but it rhymes.
While on the subject, why not rhyme on names? I'm not sure, but even better names than "Hattie House" or "Stephen Dowling Bots" do not work well for rhyme. It is something that only Chaucer, who has a uniquely subtle touch, could get away with. The almost comically naive tone of these lines from "The Knight's Tale" give them an odd pathos:
"Why woldestow be deed," thise wommen crye,
"And haddest gold ynough, and Emelye?"
The oddity and pathos of these lines must have stuck in Pope's head. Nearing death himself, he gave his watchdog, Bounce, to Lord Orrery and, learning later that the dog had died, wrote,
Ah Bounce! ah gentle beast! why wouldst thou dye,
When thou had'st meat enough, and Orrery?
These are possibly the last lines Pope ever wrote, but are not his only rhyme upon a name. In the "Epistle to Arbuthnot," after an impassioned defense of his parents' character and conduct, he concludes:
That harmless mother thought no wife a whore:
Here this, and spare his family, James Moore.
The second line is clearly inept, and apparently artistically naive. To all appearances the author has lost artistic control in his indignation. But, since nothing in Pope is spontaneous, we can be sure the effect is calculated. For a good poet, even bad lines can have their uses.
The best a poem at this level can hope for is a memorable badness, as in these lines on the evils of tobacco:
Some do it chew, and some it smoke,
And some it up their nose do poke.
Most poets at the first level have a sense of their own deficiency, and aspire to something better--to the level of "inevitable rhyme." Here the poet must be sophisticated enough to know the words that are typically paired. For us, the best known is "moon-June." "Breeze-trees" is the example Pope uses in the
Essay on Criticism. "Love-above," and "love-dove," are also common. Sometimes, especially in song lyrics, one can guess, not merely the rhyme word, but the whole line. This seems especially to be the case with songs that aspire to express "deep thoughts."
The very fact of inevitability gives rhyme a logic it did not have at the previous level, and the poem a quality of proficiency and smoothness. It is, of course, difficult to have an inevitability for every line, so some rhymes will be at the level below, some at the level above, but the inevitable rhymes give the poem its tone. Here, as at the lower level, there is little content; everything is swallowed up in the stylization.
Fortunately, a great many poets advance to the third level, "Appropriate Rhyme." At this, the third level, the writer finally recognizes the most basic responsibility of the poet, that he must do at least as much as he would in prose; he must use the language proficiently, according to the laws and dynamics of the language, and the words he uses must say something. There must be a context, and the rhyme word must be appropriate to it. Warped diction and syntax are not excused by rhyme and meter. Any adjustment of language or digression for the sake of rhyme must be slight and unobtrusive. It is actually possible to say something at this level. Since writing at this level is clearly an advance, and since it is very difficult, the poet who reaches it tends to feel that he has reached the peak.
Ultimately, however, and especially in long poems, poetry at this level is frustrating and annoying, both for the writer and for the reader, and for the same reason. To produce this relatively natural sounding language which, at the same time, has equal line lengths and rhyme requires great effort on the part of the poet with no compensating advantage to the reader. And, there are still compromises, however unobtrusive. Grammar and word order are still juggled, and weaker phrasing sometimes still replaces stronger. The sense of arbitrary and unproductive labor becomes oppressive both for writer and reader. Why not simply drop it and give everybody a break?
Most translation in rhyme are at this level, a fact that probably accounts for the general hostility to rhymed translation, even when the original rhymes, even when it is in a form such as the sonnet which seems to demand rhyme. This is probably also the reason so many poets and poetry editors, who themselves tend to be poets, have a prejudice against rhyme. They have reached this level of proficiency, and have found the benefits less than the labor.
For an example of translation, consider this version of Horace's 14th ode of the Third Book:
O commons, just as Hercules of yore,
Though death should be the price, sought crowns of bay,
So conquering Caeser from the Spanish shore
Comes home again today.
Since thou to righteous heaven hast proffered thanks,
Come forth, O matron, faithful to thy spouse,
Our famous leader's sister, too, and ranks
Of dames whose supplient brows
Are circleted in gratitude to learn
Of sons' and daughters' safety. I beseech
Ye, youths and maidens yet unwed, to spurn
All unpropitious speech.
There is more, but this is enough. It is no easy matter to produce such work, but this is not poetry.
There is, however, a fourth level of rhyme, "Natural Rhyme." Here rhyme becomes a positive rather than a negative. The rhyme word is not merely acceptable; it is dynamic. It is usually an important word in itself, and its choice as rhyme word is significant to the meaning of the line. Further, it exists in dynamic relation to the word or words it rhymes with. In fact, a listing of the rhyme words alone should provide a very full outline of the whole poem.
Most of the poetry in the Norton Anthology of British Literature is at this level, but an especially fine example is Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium:" I will quote only the first stanza:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
--those dying generations--at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.
Writing on the level of "Natural Rhyme" is both easier and more frustrating than at lower levels. It is easier because such rhyme cannot be "worked up" as a result of effort. The poet must be inspired. I'm not going to talk about the what or how of "inspired"--if you're serously involved in the arts you know what I'm talking about; if you're not it won't make any sense. At lower levels inspiration, though some help, is something the poet does not truly know how to take advantage of. At this level he does, and good poetry becomes easier than bad poetry was before. Writing is more frustrating, however, because the poet is now at the mercy of his inspiration. No inspiration, no poem. Further, inspiration has a mind of its own, choosing subjects you would rather let alone, and refusing subjects that there are all sorts of reasons to choose. If you do write poetry at this level you learn that some poems can only be salvaged by falling back upon blank or free verse, if there is some inspiration, but not intense enough to crystalize the poem into rhyme. Some very fine poems are ones that have refused to rhyme. One, I suspect, is Yeats' "Lapis Lazuli."
I do not mean to say that all unrhymed poems are abortive rhymed poems--some poems should not rhyme to begin with. If you do write rhymed poetry, however, many of your unrhymed poems, however good, will always seem to you to be partial failures.
Formal poetry creates a special language that is, however casual in tone, always ritual, magic, oracular, incantory. There is always a void between poet and reader, poet and poem, reader and poem. It is a kind of discourse, not in the language of concepts, but of essences. Much poetry today, including some quoted in Writer's Market Guide by editors as "the kind of poetry we like," is really not poetry at all, but short prose pieces that must be published as poetry because no prose tradition exists to accomodate them. To say this is not to deny them value, but it is not surprising that the writers of such work do not use or approve of rhyme.
The poetry discussed so far has been progressively better, level by level. The same is not necessarily true for the fifth level, that of "Evasive Rhyme." This is the level of half rhyme, slant rhyme, hinted at rhyme. Since such rhyme requires first a sense of exact rhyme from which to depart, it would seem an advance in sophistication over the previous level. It is a sophistication, however, that comes with a price. Rhyme loses much of its power to bind, to create dynamic relationships between paired words. As at the third level, rhyme here becomes technique again, and largely ceases to be magic. As far as difficulty, the issue is a tossup; possible rhymes are less immediately apparent, but they are far more numerous. And, with "Evasive Rhyme," the poet always has the option of an occassional exact rhyme.
Much of the prestiege of "Evasive Rhyme" today comes from the fact that rhyme is unfashionable; it is rhyme for people who do not like rhyme. There is always the suspicion that the poet, by not rhyming is making it easy for himself. With "Evasive Rhyme," he can make it difficult without really sounding like he is using rhyme. Still, a good poet can do some very fine things with it. Here is Theodore Roethke's "Wish for a Young Wife:"
My lizard, my lively writher,
May your limbs never wither,
May the eyes in your face
Survive the green ice
Of envy's mean gaze;
May you live out your life
Without hate, without grief,
And your hair ever blaze,
In the sun, in the sun,
When I am undone,
When I am no one.
We have finally come, like Yeats, to Byzantium, to the last level of rhyme, "Assertive Rhyme." At this level rhyme takes power, dominating the voice of the poem, and claiming such complete authority that even awkward rhymes such as those we might expect at the first level may be incorporated without loss. Their very obviousness becomes not a sign of ineptness, but rather of authority. Art that conceals itself may be more sophisticated and mature than art that flaunts itself, but the ultimate state is an art that feels free to do both or neither, an art beyond apologies. Notice how much less subtle the rhyme is here than in Yeats' less mature poetry:
Why should not old men be mad?
I have known a likely lad
That had a sound fly-fisher's wrist
Turn to a drunken journalist:
A girl that knew all Dante once
Live to bear children to a dunce;
A Helen of social welfare dream,
Climb on a wagonette to scream.
Most of the best rhymed poetry is not at this level; rhyme which asserts itself so strongly comes with a price. If rhyme demands more than its share, other elements such as voice and tone will get less. But though most of the best poems are not at this level, no one has fully mastered rhyme who has not reached it.
This level is especially characteristic of the 17th century, so that I am tempted to call it Baroque Rhyme. Among obvious examples are Henry Vaughn's "The Retreat:"
Happy were those early days when I
Shined in my angel infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appoiinted for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught,
But a white celestial thought.
Other examples are most of Andrew Marvell's better known poems, such as "Bermudas," "An Horatian Ode," "The Garden,"
"To His Coy Mistress":
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
The examples so far seem to suggest that Assertive Rhyme belongs strictly to the couplet, and to the four stress line. It is easier, certainly, when the rhymes are closer together, but there are examples in other forms. I could argue for "Sailing to Byzantium" as a poem at this level. W.H. Auden uses Assertive Rhyme for many poems written in quatrains. Robert Frost's "A Considerable Speck," and "Departmental" are in short lines and couplets, but "Design" is a sonnet, and thoroughly "Assertive." Here is the opening:
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight,
Mixed ready to begin the morning right.
This seems to me enough, so I will end with a poem of my own in "Assertive Rhyme" which I never got around to getting published:
My Jersey Cow
Come, Margery, there is no need
To let the others take your feed;
There never was an Angus yet
That had a horn, but you've a set,
And were it not for idle fears,
You could play tyrant with your peers.
I keep a farm that does not pay
Because it lets me get away
From academics and pretense
Into a world of common sense.
But you're just like Professor Who,
That would not say half what he knew,
Because he feared colleagues would hiss him,
Accusing him of . . . ist and . . . ism.
But I'd expect a cow to dare,
If not real horns, these horns of air. ---Jack Hart