Rhyming Illustrative Essays

I.6. Rhyme-schemes, stanza patterns

1. Rhyme-schemes

One of the most basic functions of rhyme is to create connections between lines of poetry and thus to form units larger than individual lines. Such units are therefore characterized by certain patterns of rhymes which are termed rhyme-schemes. Rhyme schemes are usually represented by lower-case letters, each successive letter of the alphabet standing for a new rhyme as in the examples below:

The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies;
The merry bells ring
To welcome the Spring;
The sky-lark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around,
To the bells chearful sound

a
a
b
b
c
c
d
d

Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:

a
b
a
b

I have lived with shades so long,
And talked to them so oft,
Since forth from cot and croft
I went mankind among,

That sometimes they

In their dim style

Will pause awhile

To hear my say;

a
b
b
a
c
d
d
c

The smallest unit of rhyming lines is the couplet: two lines (usually of similar length) joined together by rhyme (see the first example above). Couplets are a very popular form in English poetry. They appear in short lyrical poems (e.g. in William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’) as well as in long narrative or argumentative ones (e.g. in Alexander Pope’s ‘Essay on Criticism’).

N.B. You should be very careful when using the term couplet because the Hungarian concept of ‘páros rím’ might easily confuse you. Although these terms refer to similar concepts, their usage is entirely different. Couplet denotes a set of two lines (which rhyme), while ‘páros rím’ designates a rhyme (which appears at the end of two successive lines). Besides, couplet can only function as a noun, it has no adjectival use, so the term does not exist in English. Do not try to coin such terms as to translate ‘páros rím’ either. You will just have to put up with the fact that the term ‘páros rím’ has no equivalent in English.

Units of three (usually rhyming) lines are called tercets. Tercets rhyming aaa can appear, for instance, in long poems written in couplets as a variation (e.g. in Pope’s ‘Essay on Criticism’). Such tercets are also called triplets. Another typical use of tercets is to be found in the last section of the Petrarchan sonnet. The last six lines in this form (also called the sestet) consist of two tercets rhyming cde cde or cdc dcd or cde dce. Tercets are also used in the Italian form terza rima (rhyming aba bcb cdc ded etc.), which was most famously used in Dante’s Divine Comedy and was adapted in English poetry, as well, the most famous examples being Percy Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and his ‘Triumph of Life’. Enclosed tercets (rhyming aba) are also used in the villanelle (e.g. in Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’) and unrhymed tercets are used in the haiku.

A unit of four lines of poetry joined by rhyme is called a quatrain. Quatrains are perhaps the most frequently occurring rhyming units in English poetry. The most common rhymes schemes in quatrains are the alternating (abab) pattern (also called crossed rhyme, alternate rhyme) and the enclosing (abba) pattern (also called enclosed rhyme, envelope rhyme, but note that although Hungarian ‘ölelkező rím’ is a beautiful notion, the term is not really used in English!). Another typical rhyme scheme in quatrains is the xaxa pattern where x stands for a blank or unrhymed line-ending. This form is typically used, for instance, in the ballad stanza.

Rhyming units consisting of more than four lines can also be named (e.g. quintain/quintet/ cinquain, sexain/sextet, septet, etc.); however, these terms are less frequently used. Couplet, tercet, and quatrain, by contrast, are very useful terms; they are often used because units of two, three and four lines tend to form parts of larger stanza patterns.

2. Stanza patterns

Stanza is a very widely used term to refer to groupings of poetic lines. Most generally defined it is any group of lines that is distinguished in the poem from other groups of lines. Stanzas are thus not necessarily rhyming units. A blank line before and after a group of unrhymed lines in print is enough to identify those lines as a separate stanza. However, in most cases the stanzas in a poem tend to share a common structure, which often includes the same rhyme-scheme (as well as other features, such as rhythm and line length). Ballads, for example, tend to use four-line stanzas with an xaxa rhyme-scheme. Some of the most important English stanza forms are given in the Combinations of Accentual Syllabic Verse and Rhyme Patterns section of this Introduction.

3. The function of rhyme schemes and stanza patterns

Just as with any other formal feature in poetry, the important thing about rhyme schemes and stanza patterns in not that you should be able to identify them but that you should be able to see how they function in the particular poem you are reading. Of course you will have to be able to recognize rhyme schemes and stanza patterns and will have to use the above terminology appropriately. This, however, is just a minimal requirement. Your real task will always be to see and to explain what effects these rhyme schemes create and how they are used in the poem.

The first and most conspicuous function of rhyme schemes is that as they form units of sound, they can also suggest units of sense. In the traditional Petrarchan sonnet, for example, the first eight lines rhyming abbaabba tend to form one unit of sense and the last six lines rhyming cde cde or cdc dcd another. The function of the first is usually to present a problem or describe a situation, while the latter gives a response to the problem or situation (a personal reaction, an illustration, a proposed solution etc.). As opposed to this in the Shakespearean sonnet the problem is developed in three quatrains of alternating rhymes and a closing couplet briefly sums up the situation in an epigrammatic fashion or offers a punch line which ironically contrasts the previous discussion.

Apart from marking units of sense rhyme schemes can suggest meanings on their own, too. The abab alternating pattern, for instance, suggests movement, dynamism, or playfulness, while the abba enclosing structure creates associations of something more static, stately and dignified. Tercets, especially with the terza rima rhyme scheme, also suggest movement, dynamism, while couplets tend to create a halt, they give the impression that something is finished, competed (this is clearly the function of the closing couplet of the English sonnet).

Look at how Percy Shelley combines terza rima tercets and couplets in ‘Ode to the West Wind’ to give the impression of irresistible movement on the one hand, and of circularity (halting and starting again) on the other. See the poem.

These are of course just general tendencies: in each poem the rhyme scheme is used, and is combined with other devices, to achieve a unique purpose.

John Milton, for example, uses enjambment to add dynamism to the stateliness of the Petrarchan sonnet in his Sonnet XVIII: ‘On the Late Massacre in Piedmont’. See the text.

For an example of the complex and suggestive use of the rhyme scheme see how Robert Frost makes use of the unusual rhyme scheme in his poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. See the text with comment.

Exercises

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Washington Post, "Berliner Acoustic Wall Cell Wins in Philadelphia Test," 1928 Aug. 9.
Washington Post, "Berliner Funeral to be Held Today," 1929 August 5.
Washington Post, "Berliner is to Fight for City's Birth List," 1928 Feb. 23.
Washington Post, "Berliner, Not Edison is Inventor of the Microphone, Book Declares." 1926 December 19
Washington Post, "Berliner Will Provides For Health Education," 1929 August 8.
Washington Post, "Contest Develops Over Berliner Will," 1929 September 11.
Washington Post, "Emile Berliner," 1929 August 4.
Washington Post, "Emile Berliner, Inventor, is Dead," 1929 August 4.
Washington Post, "Emile Berliner's Funeral Attended by Many Friends," 1929 August 6.
Washington Post, "Health Bureau Ban on Child Pamphlet Rouses Mrs. Rafter," 1928 Feb. 22.
Washington Post , "Emile Berliner, Man of Simplicity," 1929 September 15.

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Washington Daily News, "Emile Berliner and the Babies of Washington," 1929 Aug. 6.
Washington Daily News, "P.T.A. Will Attack Medical Society in Child Fight," 1928(?) Feb. 21.
Washington Daily News, "Scientific Group Lauds Washington Inventor," 1928 Oct. 18.
Washington Evening Star, "Berliner Leaves Trust Fund for Aid of Children," 1929 Aug. 7.
Washington Star, "Death of Berliner Recalls Triumphs," 1929 Aug. 4.
Washington Evening Star, "Emile Berliner," 1929 Aug. 5.
Washington Evening Star, "Emile Berliner, Famous Inventor, Dies After Stroke," 1929 Aug. 3.
Washington Star, "Emile Berliner Reaches 75 Today," 1926 May 20.
Washington Sunday Star, "A New Idea in Acoustics," 1928 Nov. 11.
Washington (Evening?) Star, "Saving Lives of Babies," 1929 July 22.
Washington Star, "Silence on the Air Honor to Berliner, Radio Benefactor," 1929 Aug. 4.
Washington Star, "Simple Rites Held for Emile Berliner," 1929 Aug. 6.

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New York Herald Tribune, "Emile Berliner, Talking Machine Inventor, Dead," 1929 Aug. 4.

Courtesy AT&T, AT&T Archives, 5 Reinman Road, Warren, NJ 07059:

[Letter from Thomas Vail to Emile Berliner, 1918 March 4].
[Letter from John J. Carty of American Telephone and Telegraph Company to Emile Berliner, 1923 June 21].
[Letter from John J. Carty of American Telephone and Telegraph Company to Emile Berliner, 1923 June 29].
[Letter from H. B. Thayer, President of American Telephone and Telegraph Company to Emile Berliner, 1923 August 13].
Bell-Berliner system since 1879

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