The Technic of Rhyme

by Richard Hovey

The Independent, New York: October 19, 1893


       ABOUT one-third of those effects in poetry which are due only to the nature and relations of the sounds employed, is produced by certain well-defined or easily definable uses of the principle of parallelism, or repetition. The most generally recognized of these effects is Rhyme; and as the word rhyme, besides, had once a wider significance than now (e.g., in the old use of staff-rhyme for alliteration), I have ventured to use it in the heading of this article, rather than some more correct and general but less familiar term. The effects of which I speak form a class of prosodical phenomena, lying between the purely rhythmic group on the one hand and the purely phonetic on the other, and partaking to some extent of the nature of each. They might be defined broadly as the use of phonetic means for ends primarily rhythmical; and as they all have in common the use of a recurrence of like vowels and consonants, the word homœophony might be used to connote them scientifically.
       At first glance it would perhaps seem that those recurrences of emphatic pitch and force which we call accent should be as properly classified here as are recurrences of tone-color, i.e., vowels and consonant; for accent also is phonetic in nature and rhythmical in function. But accent is so fixed a quality of English speech, and so universally present as the mark of all English rhythm, that it gives rise to no effects distinguishable from those which are appropriately considered under the head of Rhythm pure and simple. With that re-enforcing, blending or complicating of the rhythm, which comes from recurrences of vowels and consonants, the case is otherwise. Such use of vowels and consonants is not universal in English speech, and its phonetic value is not, as with accent, swallowed up in its rhythmical function, but remains an equiponderant factor in the total expression. It is thus quite clearly distinguished from accent and from all forms of simple Rhythm.
       The phenomena of Homœophony might be classified with regard to the nature of the sounds repeated, whether vowels, consonants or glides, or whether whole syllables, half syllables or single letters; or a classification might be based on the position of the recurrent sounds, whether initial, medial or final. But a broader and more fundamental arrangement seems to be founded on distinction of function rather than on distinction of nature, and for this reason I am inclined to adopt the following division of the subject:
       1. Repetitions on the accented places of lines or phrases, to re-enforce and color the rhythmic beat; i.e., Alliteration.
       2. Repetitions that mark off groups of feet, usually lines. With a slight widening of the ordinary acceptation of the word, this may be described as Rhyme.
       3. Repetitions that fall indiscriminately on accented and unaccented places in sufficient number to give unity to a passage by subtly filling the ear with the insistence of a dominant tone color. For this division Professor Sylvester, who first noted its importance if not its very existence, proposed the name syzygy, in the use of which he was followed by Lanier; but the word is neither obvious nor musical and, after twenty years, it has failed to secure acceptance. Mr. Bliss Carman proposes Colliteration, which I have adopted as more euphonious and as following the analogy of alliteration, which is already familiar.
       The distinction between alliteration and colliteration may be illustrated by this passage from Browning, in which both effects are made use of:

              "But I know not any tone
              So fit as thine to falter forth a sorrow."

Here the repeated f's (fit, falter, forth) are a true alliteration, falling on the beat of the measure and emphasizing it; the t-class sounds (t in but, not, tone, fit, to and -ter, and th in thine and forth) are scattered indiscriminately, three falling in unaccented syllables, and two only (and those not exactly the same) on the beginnings of the accented syllables. The result of this scattering is that they do not catch the ear as the alliterating f's do; but they do unconsciously impress the mind with a sense of a prevailing color, as of some other group, the k-group for instance. Again, the n's (know, not, any, tone, thine) form a colliterating group with a slight associated alliteration (the final n's of tone and thine, which strongly affect the beat). I am aware that the pure Saxon understanding of "alliteration" had reference to initial sounds only; but as the final sounds are sometimes used in a manner similarly emphasizing the beat of the measure, and as it would be awkward and over-technical to use more new words than are absolutely necessary, it seems to me that the word alliteration may well bear this slight extension of meaning—more especially as in current use it is by no means commonly held to its strict original significance.
       As compared with colliteration and rhyme, alliteration is physical in expression, appealing as it does to that instinct for the rhythmic beat which is the most widely distributed of the esthetic feelings. Thus alliteration may be properly used for vigorous expression, for phrases intended to stick in the memory or for a somewhat bold and dashing beauty. Used out of place or without reference to the expressive fitness of the sounds chosen for its service, it becomes glaring and vulgar, and thus has fallen with many into very bad odor. Some critics have been uncritical enough to attack the gentle Spenser for its employment, their own ears for its finer uses having perhaps been blunted by some poetaster's blundering.
       An example of the dubious use of alliteration is Poe's

              "Come up through the lair of the Lion,
                     With love in her luminous eyes";

for the unlikeness of the ideas suggested by the two lines, which nevertheless alliterate on the same letter, makes the alliteration seem forced for its own sake rather than employed for purposes of expression. On the other hand, Tennyson's

"Wailing, wailing, wailing, the wind over land and sea—
And my Willy's voice in the wind, 'O mother, come out to me,'"

is peculiarly felicitous, since the expression of w as a tone-color, as we find by researches in another branch of the subject, is weird and uncanny, easily becoming either awesome or elfin according to the other sounds with which it is associated.
       Alliteration is obvious. Colliteration is artful, unobtrusive and subtle; it produces its effect without the reader's perceiving how it is done. When very marked and associated with some degree of alliteration, its beauty may be consciously noted, as in Tennyson's

              "Moan of doves in immemorial elms,
              And murmuring of innumerable bees."

But in by far the greater number of cases (and the frequency of colliteration in good verse can hardly be overestimated) the ear has no consciousness of it whatever. This is far from saying that it has no effect, for the ear unconsciously co-ordinates many more phenomena than ever rise into consciousness. When the attention however, is called to any particular instance of colliteration, it is easy to perceive that it is the cause of a continuity of rhythm and a sweetness of expression, of which we were before dimly aware altho not rationally cognizant. Again, if we substitute in any given case a number of contrasting sounds for the colliterating ones, the loss becomes evident and sometimes grotesque.
       Rhyme, or the use of repetition to mark off groups of feet, may be divided into—1. Complete Rhyme, where the sounds repeated are entire syllables.

              "Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial hand,
                     Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
                     Hath motion, and my eye may be deceived."

                     "Soft and strong and loud and light,
                     Very sound of very light,
                     Heard from morning's rosiest hight,
                     When the soul of all delight
                                   Fills a child's clear laughter."

       2. Common rhyme, where the accented vowel and all succeeding sounds are repeated, but the preceding consonants vary. This is the ordinary English usage.
       3. Assonance, where the accented vowel is repeated, but the succeeding sounds vary. If the consonant or consonants preceding the vowel are also repeated, it may be distinguished as a full assonance.

              "Ah, couldst thou know, poor wretch, what I have known,
                     See what I saw upon that bank enshrinéd,
              Soft pity had not wholly left thy soul
And tears had dimmed, thy hard eyes uninvited."
                                                                      —"Love Sonnets of Proteus."

Assonance seems rather too weak to fulfill the function of rhyme, unless it be either full assonance, or an assonance of rich and sonorous vowel sounds, such as o, aw and the like.
       4. Half-rhyme. I propose this name to distinguish rhyming by repetition of those sounds only which follow the accented vowels, the accented vowels themselves varying:

              "O pale, pale now those rosy lips
                     I aft had kissed sae fondly!
And closed for aye the sparkling glance
                     That dwelt on me sae kindly!"—BURNS.

       This has always been used to some extent by English poets, but has recently been brought somewhat prominently into notice by the poems of Emily Dickinson, in which it is used very frequently.
       Rhyme in all these forms is a more mentalizing use of repetition than either alliteration with its appeal to the physical instinct for the rhythmic beat, or colliteration with its subtle, emotional suggestiveness. Its dominant function is to define the architecture of the verse. It marks off the line-group, a purely artificial kind of phrase, for which the ear has no such physical instinct as for the rhythmic beat, and which it is under no compulsion to observe, as in the case of the true phrase. It also enables the ear to follow and co-ordinate the still more complex structure of the stanza; and, indeed, many stanzas are such only by virtue of the order of rhymes. The sonnet is a notable and highly organized example.
       In English, complete rhymes (the rimes parfaites of the French author), assonances and half-rhymes are usually used only in a sporadic manner, to prevent the typical form, the common rhyme, from becoming monotonous. Their own expression is partly subordinated to their use for variety's sake. But even thus, they have an individuality of expression, and this becomes even more distinct when they are employed independently. Rhyme proper (especially in the form of complete rhyme, but also in that of common rhyme) is the most mental form, using the greatest amount of parallelism, which is a mentalizing principle. (Vid. "The Technic of Poetry," in THE INDEPENDENT, April 7th and 21st, 1892.) In complete rhymes this goes so far as to produce a precision and nicety much loved by the French, who more than any other nation employ this artifice, but easily passing over into affectation and a kind of punning so that that English, who dislike dandyism so much that they sometimes affect rudeness, have refused to accept more than an infrequent use of rhymes of this nature. Assonances produce the most imperceptible effect of all, while half-rhymes add to the sense of parallelism conveyed, a consciousness of the opposition of the vowels used that makes their expression more vital, careless and passionate. For the simple fulfillment of the function of marking structure, the common rhyme (mental, but not too mental) is the most fit, and the instinct of the race has approved it.
       All these forms, rhymes, half-rhymes and assonances, may involve one syllable only, in which case they are called masculine rhymes and express strength; or they may involve two syllables (which nevertheless belong to one and the same word), in which case they are called feminine and are more emotional in expression. Triple rhymes differ slightly, if at all, from feminine rhymes and may be considered under the same head.

              "Till the sun grows cold,
              And the stars are old,
              And the leaves of the Judgment Book unfold!"
                                                                      —BAYARD TAYLOR.

                     "Odors, when sweet violets sicken
                     Live within the sense they quicken."—SHELLEY.

                     "Take her up tenderly,
                            Lift her with care;
                     Fashioned so slenderly,
                            Young, and so fair!"—HOOD.

       Even if the two (or more) syllables be from different words, so long as the unaccented words remain the same throughout and are enclitic, as in

                     "To know the change and feel it,
                     When there is none to heal it
                     Nor numbèd sense to steal it" (KEATS).

the rhymes may be properly classed as feminine. But when combinations of words (with this one apparent exception) are used to produce double or triple rhymes, the result is a third type, the forced rhyme, usually used for purposes of comedy and always conveying a sense of mental acrobatics or else of willfulness and whim.

              "Image the whole, then execute the parts—
                     Fancy the fabric
Quite, ere you build, ere steel strike fire from quartz,
                     Ere mortar dab brick!"—BROWNING.

              "But oh, ye lords of ladies intellectual!
Inform us truly, haven't they hen-pecked you all?"

Sometimes forced rhymes may be used to express real beauty, but always with an element of whimsicalness or willful exuberance of feeling:

                     "Fife of frog and call of tree-toad,
                     All my brothers, five—or three-toed,
                     With their revel no more vetoed,
                            Making music in the rain."—BLISS CARMAN.

       Internal rhymes are rhymes that occur in the middle instead at the end of lines. These may simply mark off phrases instead of lines, as in

              "The shadows lay along Broadway."—WILLIS.

Or they may be used to create a kind of artificial cesuralation, in which case they might be said to bear a relation to cesural pauses analogous to that which end-rhymes bear to final pauses. In the example from Poe which follows, the rhyme coincides with an actual cesural pause; the two succeeding examples are entirely artificial.

              "Thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors."—POE.

                     "Now I may speak: You fool, for all
                            Your lore! Who made things plain in vain?
                     What was the sea for?"—BROWNING.

                     "Master of the murmuring courts
                            Where the shapes of sleep convene!
                     Lo, my spirit here exhorts
                            All the powers of thy demesne
                            For their aid to woo my queen.
                                          What reports
                     Yield thy jealous courts unseen?"—ROSSETTI.

       When, however, no groupings whatever are marked, rhyme becomes easily grotesque:

              "'Tis evening, and from the dark park, hark!
The signal of the setting sun, one gun."—HOOD.

If not absolutely to be condemned for this reason, Swinburne's line on Villon comes perilously near it:

              "Villon, our sad, bad, glad, mad brother's name."

But if the syllables thus treated have no final consonants, this very same phenomenon may become surpassingly beautiful; witness the last line of Verlaine's sonnet "Parsifal":

              "Et o ces voix d'enfants chantant dans la coupole!"

From this it is only a step to forms that are unquestionably alliterative or colliterative—a step that may be bridged by such a line as Byron's

                     "Oh, we'll go no more a-roving."

All of which goes to show that, useful as these classifications are in analyzing the expression of verse, it must never be forgotten that the divisions are not separated by hard and fast lines, but pass over into one another by almost imperceptible gradations. They must be apprehended with as clear a sense of their fluidity as of their distinctness.