Elements of poetry: Rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance

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Rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance are ways of creating repetitive patterns of sound. They may be used as an independent structural element in a poem, to reinforce rhythmic patterns, or as an ornamental element. They can also carry a meaning separate from the repetitive sound patterns created. Rhyme consists of identical (“hard-rhyme”) or similar (“soft-rhyme”) sounds placed at the ends of lines or at predictable locations within lines (“internal rhyme”).

1. Types of rhyming

Masculine rhyme

Masculine rhyme is  a rhyme that matches only one syllable, usually at the end of respective lines. The final syllable is stressed. This is the most common type of rhyme.

Perfect rhyme

Perfect rhyme is when two words or phrases conform to both of 2 conditions:

  1. The stressed vowel sound in both words must be identical, as well as any subsequent sounds. For example, “sky” and “high”; “skylight” and “highlight”.
  2. The articulation that precedes the vowel in the words must differ. For example, “bean” and “green” is a perfect rhyme, while “leave” and “believe” is not.

Word pairs that satisfy the first condition but not the second (such as the aforementioned “leave” and “believe”) are technically identities (also known as identical rhymes or identicals). Homophones are sometimes classified as identical rhymes, though the classification isn’t entirely accurate.

Feminine rhyme

Feminine rhyme applies to the rhyming of one or more unstressed syllables, such as “dicing” and “enticing.” So the second-to-last or pre-final syllable is stressed.

Half rhyme

Half rhyme is the rhyming of the ending consonant sounds in a word (such as “tell” with “toll,” or “sopped” with “leapt”). This is also termed “off-rhyme,” “slant rhyme,” “B-Rhyme” or apophany.

2. Position of rhyme in verse

Rhyme can be applied in couplets (2-line verses) as well as in triplets (3-line verses) and stanzas (4 or 6-line verses). For instance, in this verse 1 of 2, from CXXXVIII When lovely woman stoops to folly, by Oliver Goldsmith (Francis T. Palgrave, ed. (1824–1897), The Golden Treasury, 1875):

  • When lovely woman stoops to folly,
  • And finds too late that men betray,
  • What charm can soothe her melancholy,  (folly rhymes with melancholy – so it’s feminine rhyme, not perfect rhyme)
  • What art can wash her guilt away? (betray rhymes with away – so it’s masculine rhyme, but not perfect rhyme either)

3. Rhyme + feet + lines = poem

The rhyme, the feet and the number of lines together make up the characteristics of a particular form or genre of verse. Mostly, one can see what type of poem it is by what type of meter and rhyme it has, and how many lines it has. In a rhyme scheme, below, the matching letters show the rhyming lines.

So ABAD means that lines 1 and 3 rhyme, not lines 2 and 4.
The scheme is given and below it, what it is. The breaks between the groups of letters indicate the divisions between verses.

ABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH Alternate rhyme
A,B,A,B,B Cinquain
A,A,B,B Clerihew
A,A, B,B C,C D,D … Couplet
ABBA Enclosed rhyme
17 syllables (or on) in three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables Haiku
17 syllables, 4+ lines / vertical structure Haiku form: Haiqua
13 syllables (on) in 5-3-5   / 3-5-3 word lines Haiku form: Lune
17 syllables or less, 1 line Haiku form: Monoku
ABABCDECDE Keatsian ode
AABBA Limerick
AAAAAA Monorhyme / Tanaga
ABABBCC Rhyme Royal
ABaAabAB Rondeau
AbAabbA Rondelet
ABAR; BAB; ABAR   (where R is the refrain) Roundel
AABA Rubaiyat
AAABAB Scottish Stanza
ABCB Simple 4-line quatrain
ABAB CDCD EFEF GG Sonnet: Shakespearian
ABAB BCBC CDCD EE Sonnet: Spenserian
aBaBccDDeFFeGG Stanza Onegin
ABABBCBCC Stanza Spenserian
AABA BBCB CCDC DDDD Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening Form
ABA / BB (5-7-5 / 7-7 syllables) Tanka
ABA BCB CDC ending on “YZY Z”, “YZY ZZ”, or “YZY ZYZ” Terza
ABCBBB, or AA,B,CC,CB,B,B The Raven Stanza
AAA Triplet
A1bA2 abA1 abA2 abA1 abA2 abA1A2 Villanelle
No rhyming scheme Free Verse
“I’m afraid he’s got Odes, Mrs. Keats”: Cartoon from The Best of Private Eye 1987 - 1989 - The Satiric Verses, by Salmonella Bordes, Private Eye Productions & André Deutsch, London, 1989
“I’m afraid he’s got Odes, Mrs. Keats”: Cartoon from The Best of Private Eye 1987 – 1989 – The Satiric Verses, by Salmonella Bordes, Private Eye Productions & André Deutsch, London, 1989

4. Poetry and singing

Rhyme is probably the most important element in the lyrics of a song. All songwriters, singers and recording artists must know – and be highly skilled at – writing lyrics, and to boot, rhyming lyrics. Otherwise, if they can only write the music, they have to partner with someone who can. And to effectively combine music and lyrics is profoundly, intensely DIFFICULT. Unlike novels, where you have pages and pages in which to make yourself understood, lyrics are 1) aural and visual communication combined 2) limited by both poetical form and musical conventions and 3) further limited by the one outstanding element of poetry but specifically music, namely RHYTHM. So, all songwriters, singers, lyricists and recording artists need to know about RHYMING.

The Greek origin of the term poetry is Poiesis. Poïesis (Ancient Greek: ποίησις) is etymologically derived from the ancient term ποιέω, which means “to make”. This word, the root of our modern “poetry”, was first a verb, meaning “an action that transforms and continues the world”. In ancient times, poetry was sung and performed. Poetry was transferred orally, before it was written down and published.

Leonard Cohen as poet and lyricist

Lyrics is the modern version of an ancient art – poetry. Think of rap as modern poetry set to a rhythm or a beat. It’s a natural progression – from poems to lyrics, for instance, early in his career, Leonard Cohen first read his poems out loud, then performed them to a drumbeat, or minimalist backing, before he turned them into songs. Still, when he sings, he sounds like he is talking. When he performs this favourite one of lovers everywhere: A Thousand Kisses Deep, he refers to Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost: “But I have promises to keep,|/ And miles to go before I sleep.”

Here he recites the poem:

The full text is here. He also sings the poem, and it has been used in a movie with the same name. It is amazing how many rhymes he found for “deep” – meat, sweet, sleep, heat, sleet, physique, fleet, unique, weak, meek, complete, etc.

But the interesting thing is, despite the mixture of rhymes, half-rhymes and  internal rhyme, all you remember at the end of it, is the evocative phrase “a thousand kisses deep”, that is reinforced by all the other rhyming words. The sung version is below. How he changes the pauses or caesuras in the poem to fit the music, for instance, breaking before “in-vin-ci-ble defeat”.

Cohen has explained that:

“There are about 30 verses of it that I’ve done and hopefully they’ll work their way into other songs. I think there are six verses in this version. On the Internet, I published 12 verses of the song. (..) It’s taken so long to write and it was so much of my ordinary day even when I was in the meditation hall spending long hours. I suppose I was supposed to be calming my mind or directing it to other areas, but I was working on the rhymes for A Thousand Kisses Deep. I found the mediation hall was an excellent place to work on songs. I could concentrate on a verse, work out the rhymes and the ideas would come.”

Performed poetry

All over the world, poetry and songs were created long before the novel or other written forms. In many countries, like China and Japan, the poem form is regarded as much more important than the novel. Skill and mental acuity are demonstrated by writing poems, not novels.

Coming full circle – from the sung narrative, through poems to lyrics – there are still certain performance versions of poems today that are largely narrative in format. According to folklorist Kay Turner, “Even if a story is the same, across ages and cultures, each culture will tell it differently, because each one has its own genres and cultural rules.” That’s led to a host of different traditions and practices of performing stories around the world, including:

  • Hula dancing (traditional hula dancers dance not to a beat, but to language, Hawaiian-language chants or songs. No words – no meaning.)
  • Chinese Shadow Puppetry (with limbs controlled with rods) that tell folk stories, issues moral lessons, and projects specific local customs.
  • Zajal – The classical Arabic version of a poetry slam or rap battle, would you believe it.
  • Cunto – Sicilian storytelling relying on improvisation and alternating between sung verse and spoken prose.
  • Rakugo – Japanese tradition of monologues by a single storyteller, called a hanashika.
  • Griots, or Jelis, the traditional keepers of a society’s history in West African cultures, who often play instruments such as the kora, similar to a lute, and preserve family and cultural histories in the manner of a genealogist.
  • Bharatanatyam – Indian temple dancers, or devadasis, perform bharatanatyam, a dance that is considered a form of prayer, telling the stories of specific deities
  • Calypso – Developed in the early 20th century in Trinidad, where the lyrics, which described local life and neighborhood dramas, were used as a tool to share news and shine a light on everything from the challenges of a banana farmer to local political corruption.

These forms clearly illustrate the convergence of prose, poetry and lyrics. But ultimately, what makes the different between prose and poems, story-telling and lyrics, is simply RHYMING. You can’t rhyme, or you can’t match the rhyme to the beat or rhythm, Mr. Songwriter, you have a problem.

5. Sounds in rhymes

Alliteration is the repetition of letters or letter-sounds at the beginning of two or more words immediately succeeding each other, or at short intervals; or the recurrence of the same letter in accented parts of words. Alliteration can take many forms, for instance:

  • Consonance occurs where a consonant sound is repeated throughout a sentence without putting the sound only at the front of a word. (For example: I tawt I taw a puddy-tat — Tweetie-bird from Loony Tunes)
  • Assonance is the repetition of vowels (a, e, i, o, u, and y, sometimes w – and combinations of those, in English) in two or more words immediately succeeding each other, in a line or at the end of a line. (For example: Fire at the private eye hired to pry in my business.— Eminem, Criminal)
  • Sibilance is the repetition of s-sounds like s or sh or z in two or more words immediately succeeding each other. (For example: Trusssst in me, jusssst in me, sssshut your eyesssss, trusssst in me —“ Kaa the Python” from the Disney movie, The Jungle Book, 1967)
  • B-Rhymes, also called slant rhymes or half-rhymes

B-Rhymes are words that have a high degree of consonance, or similarity in sound. Words that fully rhyme are exactly the same in HOW THEY SOUND in their last 1,2 or 3 syllables. B-Rhymes have sounds that don’t rhyme, but still sound similar. Slant rhymes have the advantage of being novel, different or unexpected. This can be used to avoid rhyming clichés (e.g. rhyming “love” with “dove”) or obvious rhymes, (“me” and “see” and “be”) and gives the writer greater freedom and flexibility in forming lines of verse. Additionally, many words have no perfect rhyme in English, necessitating the use of slant rhyme – here’s a list of them.

The use of half rhyme may also enable the construction of longer multisyllabic rhymes than otherwise possible, for instance in rap, free verse or prose poetry.

6. Rhyme scheme

In many languages, including modern European languages and Arabic, poets use rhyme in set patterns as a structural element for specific poetic forms, such as ballads, sonnets and rhyming couplets. However, the use of structural rhyme is not universal even within the European tradition. Many modern poets avoid traditional rhyme schemes instead being “free verse”. Which is often much like talking or an internal dialogue. This makes it necessary for the poet to use other features to distinguish their poem from prose – for instance internal rhyme, alliteration, strong metaphor, intense emotion, strong closing lines, etc.

Classical Greek and Latin poetry did not use rhyme – they used meter. Some rhyming schemes have become associated with a specific language, culture or period, while other rhyming schemes have achieved use across languages, cultures or time periods. Some forms of poetry carry a consistent and well-defined rhyming scheme, such as the chant royal or the rubaiyat, while other poetic forms have variable rhyme schemes.

Most rhyme schemes are described using letters that correspond to sets of rhymes, so if the first, second and fourth lines of a quatrain rhyme with each other and the third line does not rhyme, the quatrain is said to have an “a-a-b-a” rhyme scheme. Inevitably, the rhyme scheme is linked to the meter of the poem. The words used define the meter, which in turn defines the rhyme scheme.

Next article in the series about Poetry and Lyrics: Metre/meter and feet