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Rhyme and reason: how do we describe different types of rhymes?

English has a rich vocabulary for rhyme, but names are unstable: in what follows, therefore, alternative names are sometimes provided in parenthesis. Fortunately, however, there is more variation in labelling than understanding, for the basic definition of rhyme as involving two elements (the last stressed vowel + all following letters) creates an obvious structure of degree.

In full (or perfect) rhyme both elements are correctly matched (as in ‘hand/band’), and this can be intensified into rime riche (which as a French term always keeps its italics) by extending the rhyming sequences backwards from the last stressed vowels (‘right hánd/fright ánd’).

The obvious next step is half- (or imperfect, near, slant) rhyme, with only one element correctly matching, which divides into vowel rhyme, with the same last stressed vowel but different following letters (‘hand/hang’), and pararhyme, with the same letters following different vowels (‘hand/bind’). For the mathematically-minded, these four primary variants might be represented as {(+1,1), (1,1), (1,0), (0,1)}.

A second common analysis is by type. If the last stressed vowels are in last syllables (‘hánd/bánd’, ‘cáre/bewáre’, ‘disgúst/entrúst’), the rhyme is stressed (the older term, abandoned as sexist, was masculine rhyme). If the last stressed vowels are followed by one or more metrically unstressed syllables (‘hánding/stánding’, ‘Atlántic/gigántic’), the rhyme is unstressed (or feminine). The use of multiple words to form a rhyme (‘poet/know it’), or of rhyming phrases (‘on the run/in the sun’), creates mosaic rhyme, which if deliberately silly or outrageous (‘hypotenuse/lot o’news’) is known as Hudibrastic rhyme, from Samuel Butler’s practice in Hudibras.

There are also three oddities: the logical auto- (or null or identical) rhyme, of a word with itself; the illogical eye- (or printers’) rhyme, when words that look as if they rhyme are not so pronounced (‘-ough’ is notorious: cough, bough, rough, dough); and the playful variety of spelling rhymes, using humorous distortion or abbreviations (compare ‘& Co./although’with ‘& Co./dump any’).

To these can be added wrenched rhyme, when ‘normal’ pronunciation is overridden to create a rhyme by distorting one last vowel into conformity with the other (‘hand/brigánd’); and two further types of distorted rhyme, embedded rhyme, of one word with a medial part of another (‘band/handfast’), especially popular in song when the rhyme can be sounded in delivery, and which can be displayed on the page as broken rhyme, when the word containing the medial rhyming syllable is split between lines. In his last collection, A Scattering of Salts (1995), the underrated American poet James Merrill (1926–95) combined both in ‘Snow Jobs’, a wicked take on twentieth-century political integrity: “Like blizzards on a screen the scan-/dals thickened at a fearful rate / Followed by laughter from a can / and hot air from the candidate.”

Expanding slightly, a third common analysis is by the position of rhyming words within lines. Terminal rhyme, between words ending lines, is predominant, but medial rhyme (at least one nonterminal word) remains common in song lyrics, libretti, and comic poetry—think of Gilbert & Sullivan, Tom Lehrer, or Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. There is one strict form of medial rhyme, leonine rhyme, when the word in the middle of the line (technically, preceding the caesura) rhymes with the end-word of the same line (as in “And louder rose the ragged crows”or “And blessed with bread the waters red”, both from Charles Causley’s ‘Christ at the Cheesewring’). Initial rhyme, with at least one word beginning a line, is rarer, but as autorhyme can be created by repeated lines and formulae (as in the Psalms) or refrains that vary only slightly (as in many ballads).

Expanding again, the final common analysis is of relation, the pattern in which rhymes are combined (or rhyme scheme). Using the quatrain as an example, and the standard notation of rhyme schemes (in which successive letters, a b c. . ., represent rhyming lines), if all lines rhyme, it is monorhyme (aaaa); if two lines rhyme and two are blank, it is single rhyme (aabc, abac, abca, abbc, abcb, abcc); if successive pairs of lines rhyme, it is couplet rhyme (aabb); if alternating lines rhyme, it is cross-rhyme (abab); and if the rhymes have mirror symmetry, it is arch- (or chiasmic) rhyme (abba).

Once a pattern is sufficiently established to generate expectations of rhyme, rhymes may be accelerated by shortening the line (as in lines 3–4 of limericks) or by bringing a line forward (as ababcdd, where the second d is earlier than expected); or equally be delayed, by lengthening the line (as at the end of Spenserian stanzas) or by putting a line back (as ababcdced, where the second d is later than expected). And if a rhyme-sound is carried over from one stanza to another—as in the terza rima made famous by Dante, rhyming aba bcb cdc and so on—it is chain rhyme.

Finally, critics also talk of semantic rhyme, between words with related meanings (as ‘glass/vitreous’ or ‘cake/bake’), and thematic rhyme, between words that are linked in a given work (‘free/ slavery’ or ‘redeem/dream’, for example, in a poem about Emancipation). There is also, therefore, counter-semantic rhyme, between words with opposed meanings, as ‘make/break’, ‘raise/raze’, or, famously, ‘death/breath’. In theory these are all desirable qualities in a rhyme, but in practice are intimately dependent on diction, the verbal range and register of a poem: if a semantic or thematic rhyme fits, all well and good, but if diction is forced, to admit for the sake of a rhyme a word that stands out as one the speaker of the poem would not use, even a perfectly semantic rhyme will not turn any profit.

These four kinds of analysis, by degree, type, position, and relation, enable accurate discussion, and offer writers a way forward in composition and revision. They are not complete—the effects and uses of rhyme exceed all handy analysis, especially where accents and non-standard spelling are involved, and it can always surprise—but there are nevertheless connections between particular poetic effects and particular combinations of rhyme, awareness of which can guide writers to control, as much as readers to understand, what is going on.

Edited extract of an introduction by John Lennard from the New Oxford Rhyming Dictionary ©Oxford University Press 2012