Rhyme is defined by the Collins English Dictionary as the ‘sameness of the final sounds at the ends of lines of verse, or in words’. For example, the word ‘hill’ rhymes with the word ‘still’. There are, of course, many different types of rhymes, including ‘eye rhyme’ (the rhyming of ‘love’ and ‘move’ for example), ‘feminine rhyme’ (the rhyming of ‘hollow’ and ‘follow’ for example), and ‘identical rhyme’ (the rhyming of ‘gun’ and ‘begun’, or ‘sea’ and ‘see’ for instance). Rhyme does not necessarily have to be at the end of lines – when the word at the end of the line rhymes with another word in the same line this is known as ‘internal rhyme’; when Edgar Allan Poe wrote: “Once upon a midnight, dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,” he was making use of internal rhyme. The Chinese Classic of Poetry (circa 10th Century BC) is the earliest example of rhyme, and it was not until the 7th Century AD that rhyme was introduced to Europe. Although there are traces of it in the Bible and the Qur’an, it was not a common feature of European poetry until around the 11th Century.
Rhyme was originally used as a mnemonic device. Before poetry was written down and recorded, the poets themselves had to be able to remember and recite their poetry by heart. The use of rhyme in the poems made it easier for the poets to remember the next line, since they knew how it would sound. This sort of rhyme is used by children and adults alike to remember laws of grammar or the order of the planets, amongst other things. For instance, this mnemonic is used to remember how many days are in each month:
30 days hath September,
April, June, and November.
April, June, and November.
All the rest have 31
Except February my dear son.
It has 28 and that is fine
But in a Leap Year it has 29.
Rhyme has therefore been an integral part of poetry since its very beginnings, and it has grown to become a part of poetic tradition. It is no longer simply used as an aid to memorization, but that is what rhyme was originally for.
Rhyme is also used to improve the sound of poems when read aloud. Rhyme formalizes and establishes a structure to the poem that makes it sound much more aesthetically pleasing, and indeed many ‘poetry purists’ believe that free-verse is incredibly lacking in organisation. Rhyme has the ability to turn simple prose into excitingly lyrical poetry. Moreover, many poems, particularly limericks and other witty forms of verse, wholly rely on the poet’s ability to rhyme certain words with one another. In fact, rhyme often enables the reader to preempt the next line, which makes it all the more amusing when it comes. Consider Nic Aubury’s short poem “Green Fairy Tale”:
With every glass her eyes looked bluer,
lips looked redder, hair looked blonder.
Never was a maxim truer:
absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.
Without rhyme, the poem would be wholly lacking in its humour and skill. Rhyme also brings a certain authority and gravity to poetry, and it helps to make the imagery and description of the poetry seem all the more powerful. For example, the beautiful imagery of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is complemented by the prominent rhyme scheme:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
If this poem did not rhyme it would still be a very successful piece of writing; nonetheless, the rhyme certainly improves the poem. Rhyme can also be used to help the audience or the reader of a poem. Rhyme can indicate to the reader which words to stress while reading the poem aloud, and indeed this stress can emphasise a link between certain words. This allows the poet to suggest connections without having to juxtapose the connected words.
Although this may seem to be a cynical response to the question, poets undeniably use rhyme to display their skill. In fact, without rhyme and metre poetry becomes little more than prose separated into different lines. A poet’s adherence to complicated and tricky rhyme schemes allows them to show off and to rise to the challenge of not only conveying their message, but also presenting it in a traditional format. The majority of John Donne’s early poetry was written to please his friends, and so we can assume that his constant use of rhyme was simply to impress. In his poem “The Flea” Donne uses rhyme for just this reason:
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Thus, rhyme becomes a medium by which poets can flaunt their ability, by staying true to their inspiration while also following strict rules.
Finally, rhyme can be used as a method of conveying a message. For example, if the poet aims to depict an ordered and formal, or even traditional society, they will make use of a very formal and coherent rhyme scheme. If however they wish to show a society in disharmony, they may use a much more complicated, hidden rhyme scheme, or may even neglect rhyme all together. Philip Larkin, in his poem “High Windows” (which discusses liberty and freedom in youth culture), makes use of very light rhyme, and this only serves to emphasise the lack of formality and rules in society. It is worth noting that Larkin was part of “The Movement”, a poetic group who promoted traditional poetry and it’s adherence to metre and rhyme. Larkin’s lack of rhyming therefore contributes to the poem’s overall effect.
There is, of course, no one reason why some poet’s decide to use rhyme and why some do not. It is true that rhyme has become a part of the poetic tradition and that it is used to show the poet’s skill, but these are certainly not the only reasons. Rhyme’s most interesting effect is to convey a message, or indeed to support the poem’s overall meaning. Rhyme achieves this by drawing connections between certain words, by giving the poem a sense of coherence (or indeed incoherence), and finally by improving the sound of a poem, and thus making its descriptive language much more impressive. Rhyme is one of poetry’s tools that allow it to indicate something beyond its words, and indeed a poet’s rhyming of two words can be used to indirectly evoke certain thoughts in the reader.