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Why rhyme?

In which learners considers the reasons for choosing a rhyme scheme.

In an earlier step, ‘Does a poem have to rhyme?’ (2.3), we learned that the question of whether or not to use rhyme has been disputed for hundreds of years. We gave the example of Ben Jonson’s seventeenth century poem, ‘A Fit of Rhyme against Rhyme’.[1] In this rhymed poem, Jonson criticises the use of rhyme, cursing the person who first conceived of the idea: ‘He that first invented thee, | May his joints tormented be, | Cramp’d forever.’ He is showing that while he can use rhyme effortlessly, he chooses not to. However, rhyme has been used so extensively in poetry over the course of history that for many people the words rhyme and poetry almost mean the same. Whether rhyming comes naturally to you or not, it is worth considering the reason why we might use it in the first place. Before scrolling down, take a moment to make a list of reasons a poet might choose to rhyme. After you have looked at the reasons listed, leave a comment. Did you have the same reasons? Were there any you hadn’t thought of? Was there anything you felt was missing?

Sound: Many people enjoy rhyme simply for the pure pleasure of the sound. Think for instance of nonsense rhymes or children’s poetry in which sound and the rhyming of sound is the main purpose, regardless of any meaning.

Structure: Rhyme can structure a stanza or an entire poem, linking lines and words which are sometimes far apart. In many poems this creates an interesting tension between the careful order of the poem’s form and for instance and the excessive emotion of its content.

Meaning: In the next step, we will see how rhyme can emphasize or even undermine the meaning of a poem, by bringing together rhyming pairs which complement, but also those which contradict one another.

Tradition: A particular rhyme scheme engages with a long-standing poetic tradition, from the simple rhyming couplet to the sonnet.

Inspiration: Some poets feel that by forcing yourself to follow a rhyme scheme, you will come up with poems which are more likely to surprise you than if you used free verse. The challenge of adhering to a form accesses the unconscious part of your brain in a way that simply ‘writing what you think’ doesn’t.


[1] A Fit of Rhyme against Rhyme by Ben Jonson. Poetry Foundation. Available here.

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