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The rain in Spain: rhyming traditions from early China to modern-day rap

Rhyme is heard everywhere—because it works. In advertising jingles, football chants, birthday-card greetings, tabloid headlines, political slogans, and catchphrases, rhyme makes the sentiments more powerful and more memorable. If you can’t beat them, join them; Arrive Alive—Don’t Drink and Drive; Dennis the Menace; No More War; hang ‘em and flog ‘em: in all, words are slammed together, echoed and re-echoed, as one rhyme-word prompts another or confirms the word that prompted it. Listen to any crowd chant or sing, and the punched emphasis on any rhyme shows clearly how important it is to each singer, and to all in keeping time; listen to almost any song on the radio, and its use of rhyme, for better or worse, is a primary factor in what you hear.

Contemporary rhymes

This widespread commercial, political, and social use of rhyme is a testimony to its commanding power over our attention and memory; so too, of course, is the artistic use of rhyme by poets and singers, which may in addition to power seek range and subtlety. And as anyone who reads contemporary poetry or listens to contemporary music knows, the idea that rhyme is somehow ‘old fashioned’ or has fallen by the wayside is simply nonsense. Many of the best living poets are confirmed rhymers, middle-of-the-road easy-listening ballads and rock anthems rely as much as ever on strong rhymes, and the great innovators of rhyme in recent years have been rappers, from Grandmaster Flash to the Beastie Boys and Eminem: you may like or loathe the songs, but the cleverness and frequent sting of the tumbling rhymes cannot be denied. And unwelcome as the connection might be to some, Eminem, as a heavy and complex rhymer with social purpose, is a descendant of songwriters like Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan), whose comic-operatic songs like “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” were a nineteenth century equivalent of rap. Whatever your own concerns with it, rhyme is thus worth attending to for many reasons, and to understand it helpfully some history and analysis are necessary.

A history of rhyme

Rhyme is a basic possibility of language, and must have occurred (if only by chance) in the earliest human speech. It was formalized early in Chinese and Arabic poetry, but in the West the idea of rhyme as a formal characteristic of poetry is relatively recent. No classical Hebrew, Greek or Latin poets normally used rhyme, depending instead on parallel grammar or metres based on vowel length, while Anglo-Saxon poets used the repetition of vowels or consonants known as assonance and alliteration.

When rhyme was formally organized in the West as a poetic tool, principally in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, it was in part its new and striking audibility that enabled it so rapidly to spread across Europe, first as a poetic vogue, and then as an established norm for lyric verse and song. Rhyme was able to displace alliteration and assonance because both earlier modes depend on the repetition of individual letters that may occur anywhere in a word, and so do not necessarily connect the meanings of the words in which they occur. Charles Churchill’s famous tag in The Prophecy of Famine (1763) about “apt Alliteration’s artful aid” is remembered precisely because it is self-referentially witty, as most alliterative volleys are not. Rhyme, conversely, is based not simply on whole syllables, but on a word’s last stressed vowel and all sounds that follow it, so that larger, grammatically significant elements of a word are likely to be involved.

Paradigm shift

As a formal principle of poetry rhyme thus represented a paradigm shift, one of many during the transition from ‘Late Medieval’ to ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Early Modern’. Metrically, for example, the new importance of stress signals a shift from classical metres using duration to new metres using accent, and amid such shifts, ‘rhyme’ and ‘rhythm’(both from Greek rhythmos and ultimately rhein, ‘to flow’) became distinct. Where alliteration or assonance, however rhythmic, link words only lightly within a line, relying on single sounds without individual meaning, rhyme, by linking multiple syllables (usually) in distinct lines, binds much larger parcels of sense. It is also an intrinsically complex phenomenon, interacting with spelling, poetry’s distinctive use of lines, and regional accents, and richly invites variation, while alliteration or assonance can only shift from letter to letter. Rhyme thus helped poets and singers to organize, learn, and present their material, and helped readers or audiences to understand and remember it: a powerful and distinct resource, as Oscar Wilde insisted in calling rhyme “the one chord we have added to the Greek lyre”.

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

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