I. What is Rhyme?
Rhymes are words whose endings match, as in “fly” and “spy.” This is one of the most common techniques in traditional poetry and music, and most people can easily identify rhymes.
II. Types of Rhyme
This is the “true,” classic rhyme. The sounds match exactly:
Slant-Rhyme or Imperfect Rhyme
In a slant-rhyme, the words sound pretty similar, but may not rhyme exactly. Usually, slant-rhymes have the same vowel sounds and similar consonant sounds, but there are exceptions:
When you use the same word twice, it’s an identical rhyme. Generally, audiences kind of see this as cheating, and it can make your lines sound repetitive. It’s usually best to avoid identical rhymes if you can.
III. Examples and Explanation
Red sky in the morning: sailors take warning
Red sky at night: sailors’ delight
Here’s an example of a rhyme being used as a mnemonic to help people remember information. This popular rhyme is based on the fact that a red sunrise often indicates that bad weather is coming, while a red sunset can indicate that the bad weather has passed. Of course, this isn’t always correct, but it works well enough to be worth remembering – generations of sailors have memorized this short rhyme to help them predict the weather while at sea.
Shaquille O’Neal, a man whose name is already a rhyme, starred in a 1997 movie called Steel.
Roses are red, violets are blue, something something bacon.
This is a classic setup for a rhyme, and people have heard it so many times that they are strongly expecting the rhyme to be carried through at the end. However, when strong expectations like this are violated, it can often produce laughter, as in the case of this humorous Valentine’s Day card.
IV. The Importance of Rhyme
Rhyming is very popular, and always has been, but no one is entirely sure why. One possibility, of course, is that we simply like the sound of them! Rhymes are very pleasing to the ear, and their prominence in human literature may be based on that simple fact alone.
But rhymes also have another advantage, which is that they make information easier to remember. Put yourself in the position of a storyteller in the ancient world, centuries before the invention of writing. Your job is to tell the stories passed down in your culture from generation to generation, but you can’t read them out of a book. So how can you remember all those stories? In nearly all societies, the answer has been: you make a rhyme. Thanks to the mnemonic power of rhyme, societies without writing have managed to preserve their oral traditions for generation upon generation.
Although rhymes were extremely important in traditional poetry, their importance has waned in recent decades due to the rise of free verse. Free verse does not necessarily rhyme, and is supposed to be far more open to the author’s creativity than the rhyming verse-forms of traditional poetry. In fact, rhyming is so far out of fashion in the poetry world that many poetry teachers have come to see it as nothing more than a distraction – they even go as far as to ban students from using rhymes in their poetry, at least until they have learned other skills.
Although rhymes are no longer a major part of poetry, they were essential to the poetic traditions of prior centuries, and so a full understanding of poetry cannot be achieved without an understanding of rhyme.
V. Examples in Literature
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any She belied with false compare.
(William Shakespeare – Sonnet 130)
The Sonnet is one of the most famous traditional poetic forms, and Shakespeare was its undisputed master. Every sonnet ends with a rhyming couplet (the last two lines), which is supposed to sum up the “point” of the poem. In this case, Shakespeare is poking fun at the way poets tend to exaggerate their lovers’ beauty, when really they should be acknowledging that love flourishes best when people are realistic about one another.
The road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the road as gone
And I must follow if I can.
(J.R.R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings)
Tolkien loved to write poems and songs for his various characters in Middle Earth, and most of them had pretty complex rhymes. This one, though, is supposed to be a simple folk song, so its rhymes are quite simple. The only complication is a little internal slant-rhyme in the first line (road/goes).
VI. Examples in Popular Culture
Maybe I’m lost in the grind, haunted by all I desire
Forcibly caused to be normal, bonded and tossed in the fire.
(El-P – Oh Hail No)
These lines end with a simple, perfect rhyme with desire/fire. In between, though, there are a host of internal slant-rhymes, such as lost/caused/tossed, haunted/bonded, and the word “grind,” which is a slant-rhyme for desire/fire.
No one’s been (like Gaston) a Kingpin (like Gaston)!
No one’s got a swell cleft in his chin (like Gaston)!
As a specimen yes, I’m intimidating!
My what a guy, that Gaston!
(Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)
The rhymes in Disney songs are often remarkably intricate. This short verse has several perfect rhymes in the first two lines (been-pin-chin), plus the identical rhyme of “Gaston” that occurs at the end of nearly every line. There’s also an incredible internal rhyme in the third line that could be easily overlooked: specimen/yes I’m in-.
VII. Similar Devices
Rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhymes in a poem or song. There are a potentially infinite number of rhyme schemes, and all of them are described using a sequence of letters such as ABAC or AABBCC. Each letter corresponds to a single line, and lines sharing the same letter are the ones that rhyme. So, ABCD would be a four-line poem in which none of the lines rhyme. AAAA would be a four-line poem in which all the lines rhyme with one another. And ABAB would be a four-line poem in which every other line rhymes. (You can find more musical concepts in musicaldictionary.com)
Usually, rhymes occur at the end of the line. But you can also have rhymes within a line, and in these cases they’re called “internal” rhymes. Rap lyrics tend to be very dense with internal rhymes, especially the work of Eminem:
Make me king, as we move toward a new world order
A normal life is boring, but superstardom’s close to post mortem
These two lines end with a slant-rhyme, but Eminem’s delivery makes the words seem closer in sound than the ordinarily would. Notice, though, how many internal rhymes (or slant-rhymes) there are in just these two lines. All the underlined words are very close to one another in sound, which contributes to the percussive quality of Eminem’s music.