To Rhyme or Not To Rhyme

by limebirddennis

Confession time: My current ‘bathroom book’ is a 1946 OUP version of ‘The Poems of John Milton’. In it I read an explanation of why ‘Paradise Lost’ was not rhymed poetry. (The editorial ‘The Verse’ was added in 1668 to the beginning of unsold copies of the first edition of ‘Paradise Lost’.) Here’s a short excerpt.


“THE measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac’t indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them.”

This criticism of rhyme in poetry surprised me. At school (certainly Primary school, but I suspect later too) we were taught that poems rhyme. I remember spending long periods sucking on my pencil trying to find a word that rhymed with ‘jungle’ or ‘market’… Years later, when I returned to writing poems, I naturally began with rhymed poems because they seemed more like ‘real’ poems. But some subjects just didn’t want to be constrained. Some of my friends, those who don’t read poetry, would say that if it doesn’t rhyme then it is just an essay chopped into pieces, but that is most definitely not true; a verse can be beautiful and full of poetry, without a single rhyme. For example, here’s a passage from Robert Frost’s “Birches” which I defy anyone to call unpoetic!

“I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:”

For balance, here are the opening lines of one of my favourite rhyming poems, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est”.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

So, do you feel that rhyme is “the Invention of a barbarous Age”, or do you feel that “if it doesn’t rhyme, it’s not a poem”?

 And, while we are at it, why not share your favourite poem, be it rhymed or not…

14 Comments to “To Rhyme or Not To Rhyme”

  1. Instructive post. Rhyming often obstructs the natural flow of thoughts and ideas.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree; I write both, but, for me, rhyme normally comes into play when it is a part of a structure, for example a sonnet. When I am being ‘freer’ in my writing it often doesn’t rhyme.

  2. Great post. I think with rhyming it’s definitely based on what the writer is trying to get across.

    • Thanks for your comment. I guess that, sometimes, a poet may chose a rhyming scheme to deliver a certain rhythm when read out loud – that may trump a particular word choice. Otherwise, I would think that rhyming has to fit with what the poet is trying to say or it defeats the object of writing the poem.

  3. Funnily enough, my son (12) recently had some school homework to put together a poetry anthology, he had to write 10 poems of different types, and also review 3 poems of his choice. I encouraged him to do a mixture of rhyming and non-rhyming in order to recognise that both are valid. Rhyming can be restrictive can’t it, for obvious reasons, but I think I particularly enjoy the rhyming aspect when it comes to humorous poems, I think it can work really well there. But in terms of those poems that really touch you, I would tend to lean towards the non-rhyming. Having said that, one of the poems my son chose to review, which coindentally is one of my favourite poems, is rhyming, it’s the classic…

    THE ROAD NOT TAKEN by Robert Frost

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth;

    Then took the other, as just as fair
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same,

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

    • Thanks for your comment. What a fantastic homework assignment! I hope it enthused your son.

      I totally agree with you about rhyming and humorous poems, when I was a teenager Pam Ayres was very popular in the UK, but, for me, one poem I will always love is “The Battle of Hastings” by Marriott Edgar, the last verse has always stayed with me (and I don’t often memorise poems).

      And after the battle were over
      There, sitting so stately and grand
      Was Harold, with an eyeful of arrow
      On his horse, with his hawk in his hand.

      The Road Not Taken is a wonderful poem, and there is something about the rhyming scheme ABAAB that seems to combine flow but a slight sense of ‘offness’ which, for me, has always lent deeper meaning to the poem.

  4. ‘bungle’ and ‘park it’

  5. Forcing a poem to rhyme can mess with it’s natural rhythm and flow. When trying to rhyme it can be tempting to choose a “lesser” word to fit the poem rather than the one that best conveys what you’re trying to say. I’d call this “ruined by rhyme”. That being said I really enjoy poems that rhyme and most of my favorites probably do.

    I’ve always loved Emily Dickinson:

    “Hope” is the thing with feathers—
    That perches in the soul—
    And sings the tune without the words—
    And never stops—at all—

    And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
    And sore must be the storm—
    That could abash the little Bird
    That kept so many warm—

    I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
    And on the strangest Sea—
    Yet, never, in Extremity,
    It asked a crumb—of Me.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree, some poems can show obvious signs of being forced to fit within a rhyming scheme.

      I have to admit that I have probably not read as much Emily Dickinson as I should have! Your suggestion has inspired me to go and read more!

  6. Interesting post Dennis. I also grew up with the idea that poems should rhyme but now I think it’s the flow of the language that makes a poem poetic rather than the words at the ends of lines. I love the beginning of The Wasteland which doesn’t rhyme but reads in such a melodic way that I find it very relaxing.

    I think my favourite poem is by Ezra Pound:

    And the days are not full enough
    And the nights are not full enough
    And life slips by like a field mouse
    Not shaking the grass

    Though I also love Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, that and Happy the Man by John Dryden are possibly the only two poems that I have fully memorised so they’ve obviously made an impression!

    • thanks for the comment. I agree, it is all about the flow!

      I love the imagery of life slipping by and not even disturbing the grass!

  7. Dennis what a wonderful post, sorry I haven’t been by earlier. Like you, I grew up being taught that poems rhymed. Thank heavens for an inspired English teacher in high school that showed us all of the other forms that poetry could take, and encouraged us to try them.
    My favorite? Very hard to say. Too many loves!

    • Thanks for the comment Neeks. It is hard to decide isn’t it?

      English teachers are so powerful, it is they who can give us the keys to so many different worlds…

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