Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V23, Page 275 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Spread the word: it!
RHYME, more correctly spelt RIME, from a Provencal word rim (its customary English spelling is due to a confusion with rhythm), a literary ornament or device consisting of an identity of sound in the terminal syllables of two or more words. In the art of versification it signifies the repetition of a sound at the end of two or more lines in a single composition. This artifice was practically unknown to the ancients, and, when it occurs, or seems to occur, in the works of classic Greek and Latin poets, it must be considered to be accidental. The natural tendency of the writer of verse unconsciously to repeat a sound, however, is shown by the fact that there have been discovered nearly one thousand lines in the writings of Virgil where the final syllable rhymes with a central one, thus Bella per Emathios plus quam civilia campos. It is more than doubtful, however, whether the difference of stress would. not prevent this from sounding as a rhyme in ou antique ear, and the phenomenon results more from the RHYME contingencies of grammar than from intention on the part of the poet. Conscious rhyme belongs to the early medieval periods of monkish literature, and the name given to lines with an intentional rhyme in the middle is Leonine verse, the invention being attributed to a probably apocryphal monk Leoninus or Leonius, who is supposed to be the author of a history of the Old Testament preserved in the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris. This " history " is composed in Latin verses, all of which rhyme in the centre. Another very famous poem in Leonine rhyme is the " De Contemptu Mundi " of Bernard of Cluny, which was printed. at Bremen in 1595• Rhyme exists to satisfy the ear by the richness of repeated sound. In the beginnings of modern verse, alliteration, a repetition of a consonant, satisfied the listener. A further ornament was discovered when assonance, a repetition of the vowel-sounds, was invented. Finally, both of these were combined to procure a full identity of sound in the entire syllable, and rhyme took its place in prosody. When this identity of sound occurs in the last syllable of a verse it is the typical end-rhyme of modern European poetry. Recent criticism has been inclined to look upon the African church-Latin of the age of Tertullian as the starting-point of modern rhyme, and it is probable that the ingenuities of priests, invented to aid worshippers in hearing and singing long pieces of Latin verse in the ritual of the Catholic church produced the earliest conscious poems in rhyme. Moreover, not to give too great importance to the Leonine hexameters which have been mentioned above, it is certain that by the 4th century a school of rhymed sacred poetry had come into existence, classical examples of which we still possess in the " Stabat Mater " and the " Dies Irae." In the course of the middle ages, alliteration, assonance and end-rhyme held the field without a rival in vernacular poetry. There is no such thing, it may broadly be said, as medieval verse in which one or other of these distinguishing ornaments is not employed. After the 14th century, in the north of Europe, and indeed everywhere except in Spain, where assonance held a powerfut position, end-rhyme became universal and formed a distinctive indication of metrical construction. It was not until the invention of Blank Verse (q.v.) that rhyme found a modern rival, and in spite of the successes of this instrument rhyme has held its own, at all events for non-dramatic verse, in the principal literature of Europe. Certain forms of poetry are almost inconceivable without rhyme. For instance, efforts have been made to compose rhymeless sonnets, but the result has been, either that the piece of blank verse produced is not in any sense a sonnet, or else that by some artifice the appearance of rhyme has been retained. In the heyday of Elizabethan literature a serious attempt was made in England to reject rhyme altogether, and to return to the quantitative measures of the ancients. The prime mover in this heresy was not a poet at all, but a pedantic grammarian of Cambridge, Gabriel Harvey (1545 ?–1630). He considered himself a great innovator, and for a short time he actually seduced no less melodious a poet than Edmund Spenser to abandon rhyme and adopt a system of accented hexameters and trimeters. Spenser even wrote largely in those measures, but the greater portion of his experiments in this kind, of which The Dying Pelican is supposed to have been one, have' disappeared. From 1576 to 1579 the genius of Spenser seems to have been obscured by this error of taste, but he shook it off completely when he composed The Shepherd's Calendar. Harvey considered Richard Stonyhurst (1547–1618) the most loyal of his disciples, and this author published in 1582 four books of the Aeneid translated into rhymeless hexameters on Harvey's plan. The result remains, a portent of ugliness and cacophony. A far greater poet, Thomas Campion (1575–1620), returned to the attack, and in a tract published in 1602 advocated the remission of rhyme from lyrical poetry. He, by dint of a prodigious effort, produced some unrhymed odes which were not without charm, but the best critics of the time, such as Daniel, repudiated the innovation, and rhyme continued to have no serious rival except blank verse. There have, from time to time, been made experiments of a similar nature, notably by Tennyson, but rhyme has retained its sway as an essential ornament of all English poetry which is not in blank verse. There have been not a few poems composed, principally in the nineteenth century, in rhymeless hexameters, and even the elegiac couplet has been attempted. The experiments of Long-fellow, Clough, Kingsley and others demand respectful notice, but it is more than doubtful whether any one of these, even the mellifluous Andromeda of the last-named writer, is really in harmony with the national prosody. In Germany a very determined attack on rhyme was made early in the seventeenth century, particularly by a group of aesthetic critics in the Swiss universities. They attacked rhyme as an artless species of sing-song, which deadened and destroyed the true movement of melody in the rhythm. The argument of this group of critics had a deep influence in German practice, and led to the composition of a vast number of works in unrhymed measures, in few of which, however, is now found a music which justifies the experiment. Lessing recalled the German poets to a sense of the beauty and value of rhyme, but the popularity of Klopstock and his imitators continued to exercise a great influence. Goethe and Schiller, without abandoning rhyme altogether, permitted themselves a great liberty in the employment of unrhymed measures and in imitation of classic metres. This was carried to still greater lengths by Platen and Heine, the rhymeless rhythm of the last of whom was imitated in English verse by Matthew Arnold and others, not without an occasional measure of success. In France, on. the other hand, the empire of rhyme has always been triumphant, and in French literature the idea of rhymeless verse can scarcely be said to exist. There the rime pleine or riche, in which not merely the sound but the emphasis is perfectly identical, is insisted upon, and a poet who rhymed as Mrs Browning did, or made " flying " an equivalent in sound to " Zion," would be deemed illiterate. In French, two species of rhyme are accepted, the feminine and the masculine. Feminine rhymes are those which end in a mute e, masculine those which do not so end. The Alexandrine, which is the classical metre in French, is built up on what are known as rimes croisees, that is to say a couplet of masculine rhymes followed by a couplet of feminine, and that again by masculine. This rule is unknown to the medieval poetry of France. In Italian literature the excessive abundance and facility of rhyme has led to a rebellion against its use, which is much more reasonable than that of the Germans, whose strenuous language seems to call for an emphatic uniformity of sound. But it was the influence of German aesthetics which forced upon the notice of Leopardi the possibility of introducing rhymeless lyrical measures into Italian verse, an innovation which be carried out with remarkable hardihood and success. The rhymeless odes of Carducci are also worthy of admiration, and may be compared by the student with those of Heine and of Matthew Arnold respectively. Nevertheless, in Italian also, the ear demands the pleasure of the full reiterated sound, and the experiments of the eminent poets who have rejected it have claimed respect rather than sympathy or imitation. At the close of the 19th century, particularly in France, where the rules of rhyme had been most rigid, an effort to modify and minimise these restraints was widely made. There is no doubt that the laws of rhyme, like other artificial regulations, may be too severe, but there is no evidence that the natural beauty which pure rhyme introduces into poetry is losing its hold on the human ear or is in any real danger of being superseded by accent or rhythm. See Joseph B. Mayer, A Handbook of Modern English Metre (Cambridge, 1903); J. Minor, Neuhochdeutsche Metrik (Strassburg, 1893) ; J. B. Schutze, Versuch einer Theorie des Reimes nach Inhalt and Form (Magdeburg, 18o2). (E. G.)
End of Article: RHYME

Additional information and Comments

There are no comments yet for this article.
» Add information or comments to this article.
Please link directly to this article:
Highlight the code below, right click and select "copy." Paste it into a website, email, or other HTML document.