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the Sounds of Poetry—About Rhyme

George Gordon, Lord Byron, in Turkish dress

Welcome to The Sounds of Poetry, the feature at which The Muse Of Literature explores the literary form, nature, and significance of poetic rhyme.

about this feature

Why does The Muse call this feature The Sounds Of Poetry—About Rhyme? Why not just call it the sound of rhyme or the sound of poetry? What do poetry and rhyme have to do with one another?

As explained more fully later, the word rhyme stands either for verse or for the identity of sound in verse. [link] The Muse has chosen to give this feature the title The Sounds Of Poetry—About Rhyme to emphasize that there are two meanings of the word rhymeverse and soundand to make clear that the subject at hand is the aspect of rhyme that refers to identity of sound in verse.

Most poems are written to be heard and poetry is often referred to as song. As we travel the path leading to understanding, The Muse presents audio selections of selected poems read aloud, some by poets reading their own works, some by skilled professional voices reciting the works of poets. Comparisons are made and rhymes analyzed.

Want to learn more about the way rhyme is used in verse? The Muse invites you to come along, explore, sing with us, and enjoy.

Why bother to explore rhyme?

Rhyme permeates our daily existence. We encounter it in virtually every walk of life. Rhyme is not just the stuff of poets; we hear or see it in jingles, TV ads, posters, movies, popular songs, comedy routines, jokes, greeting cards, and in many other corners of life. Almost everywhere we turn, there's something to hear or read that rhymes.

Rhyme affects us powerfully, even though we often don't realize it. Everyday it motivates us to buy or sell something, travel someplace, or do something that helps or hinders. It sends us to the voting booth, primed to elect one or another official or to vote a political party in or out of office; it motivates us to take a job or quit a job, sign up for a tour of duty in the Army or Navy, or to run out the door to do a chore for mom or pop, or for honey-baby.

Because of its emotional and motivating power and pervasiveness, one might think that we would be more conscious of rhyme than most of us seem to be. Yet rhyme is not usually thought about much outside of school (if we're students) or outside of musical, critical, or scholarly literary circles (if we're adults). It makes its presence felt in all walks of life and infiltrates many dark and dusty corners and crevices of human endeavor.

Understanding and dealing with rhyme as an artistic technique is a rare, even esoteric, practice reserved for specialists, teachers, or students doing homework assignments. For the rest of us, it remains something of a mystery. Even among students seldom is the subject of rhyme brought out into daylight, inspected, analyzed, and understood in a simple, straightforward, and open manner, such as one might analyze and understand a short story or a novel or a magazine article. Some of us explore a limited selection of poems, but seldom is rhyme objectively examined as a topic in its own right.

The Muse Of Language Arts is dead set on putting a stop to this neglect. In this feature, The Muse is taking a step in this direction by addressing such questions as:

  • Why is rhyme so powerful and why does it affect us the way it does?
  • What are the various kinds of rhyme and what are their structures?
  • What are the literary devices used by poets to achieve the results they seek when they employ rhyme?
  • When, why, and how do poets employ rhyme and when and why do they avoid it?
  • What are rhyming devices? Which poets have used them and which ones have they used? Where have they used them, for what purposes, and how effectively?
  • What are rhyme structures and what are they good for? What is the relation between a rhyme's structure, its sound, its other attributes, and its effect on us?
  • How are rhyme structures used and what have they been used for? How has their use changed with time?
  • What are rhyme schemes? How do they differ from rhyme structures? How can some rhyme schemes be so subtle and yet others be so blatant?

About this feature and poetry

Ezra Loomis Pound

Although rhyme is universal and omnipresent in a variety of different sub-societies and media, The Muse has chosen to explore the subject of rhyme as it plays out in poetry. Why?

All media that incorporate rhyme are poetic in a sense. But rhyme, along with meter, is at the very core of poetry. In poems, rhyme reaches its highest form and deepest expression; it performs all its most important, most vital functions. In poetry rhyme is more visible, vital, vibrant, and intense than it is in any of the other arts; it's at the core.

Further, poets have developed and exploited rhyme as much or more than have artists in other fields; and their use of rhyme in poetry is, on the whole, more highly refined. Indeed, it may be said that rhyme is the very heart and soul of their art.

Another reason for exploring rhyme from the point of view of poetry is that the same rhyme techniques and principles used in poetical literature have widespread applicability in other arts. Rhyme techniques that work in one art work in others, and for the same reasons.

about Poetry without sound Or rhyme

Most of the verses (poems) you're probably familiar with contain two important elements: meter (or rhythm) and rhyming sounds you can hear. Poems with these ingredients are the kind we most encounter.

For the most part, poems like these are written to sound like what they say. To achieve this effect, a poet chooses his words carefully so that they sound gay if the poem is gay, droll if the poem is clever, sad if the poem is morose, and excited if the poem is meant to excite. In short, the sounds of the words of a poem echo their meaning.

In all well-written poems of this kind, ideas, images, words, and sounds interact; they work together to produce an integrated experience. What a poem says, how it sounds, and the mental pictures it conjures are inextricably intertwined. When you hear this kind of a poem—when you really listen and listen hard—it's not just what it says that counts; it's also how it says it and how it sounds when it says it. The sounds produced by the words transform a poem from a collection of rhythmic prose statements into a song.

Because rhyme contributes so much of value to so many poems, it may surprise you to learn that some poets write legitimate poems that are only meant to be read, not "heard" except in the mind; and some write poems that contain no rhymes at all, not even rhymes that you can hear when they're read aloud.

Why can these exceptions to the sounds of rhyme take place? The underlying structural reason that allows poems to lack the sound of rhyme is that only meter (or rhythm) is required of a verse for it to be a poet; not even sound is mandatory.

There are a number of additional reasons that explain why poetic audiences can encounter poems that lack sound, rhyme, or the sound of rhyme:

  • Despite the fact that the majority of poets write works to be read out loud, most poetry is read silently, not heard. Reading poems makes us accustomed to the experience of not needing, wanting, or expecting to hear rhyme.
  • Since rhyme is technically defined as identity of sound, to hear rhyme listener's must be able to hear the words in a poem whose sounds are identical—sounds that match. Technically, poems that are not heard cannot rhyme.
  • So long as their poems are rhythmic, poets can simply prefer to write poems that lack words with sounds that rhyme.
  • Some poets, especially modern poets, prefer to write "rhymeless" poems, poems that contain no rhymes or poems designed only to be seen and not heard.
  • Even traditional and contemporary poets who want their poems to be heard may compose a kind of rhyme called a sight rhyme, a rhyme which doesn't actually make a rhyming sound if it's pronounced but which looks to a reader as though it rhymes on the page. [(More on this later. [link])]

In spite of—or perhaps because of—these poetic exceptions to the sounds of rhyme, The Muse chooses to explore all poetry from the perspective of rhyme, including in this examination poems that are soundless or "rhymeless."


Even the absence of sound or rhyme is a factor that determines how poems affect us. Sounds or their absence, rhyme or its absence, mental images, imagery (figures of speech), meter, and diction (word selection)—not the meaning of words alone or their rhythms alone—make the difference between a plain piece of written prose and a poetic experience. theyare all vital considerations in and of themselves and in combination with each other; they intensify and amplify everything we think, see, or feel while we contemplate what words mean.

Metaphysical poet John Donne as a young man

Whether or not the sounds of words or their rhymes are present or absent in a poem, all these poetic elements and others make our emotions rise and our hearts flutter; they burn a poem's ideas into our brains and hearts.

about the Universality of rhyming sounds

Of course, rhyme is not limited to poems. Rhyme permeates writing, speaking, and communication of all sorts. But no matter where it's heard, rhyme sounds the same.

Remarkably, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or language differences, people everywhere seem to be able to detect a rhyme when they hear it; they hear the same identities of sound and react to them in much the same ways, with only secondary (albeit important) differences among them due to national or cultural factors. Historical evidence confirms that this has been the case throughout history.

One major reason why almost everyone recognizes rhyming sounds in the same way is that our brains process sound in a fundamentally similar manner, one that is only slightly affected by our upbringing. And one major reason for the universal popularity and importance of rhyme is its universal power over our minds. It has an immediate and similar affects on our ears, intellects, and emotions and a lasting effect on our memories. A given rhyme affects all of us in much the same way regardless of our position or place in the world. For reasons like these, rhyme plays an integral role in most of the auditory and visual arts in countries everywhere, and it's at home in poetry in almost any way that artists around the world choose to use it.

about the universality of poetic rhyme

In this feature, The Muse distinguishes between the sounds of rhyme and the way rhyming sounds are put to use by poets. What constitutes rhyme is almost always the same thing everywhere; but different cultures and periods have developed styles, poetic structures, ways of talking about poetic rhyme, and types of poetry which significantly differ from one another in the way they put rhyming sounds to work.

Some of these differences are dramatic. Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, and Western poetry, for example, are radically different from one another even though the poetic sounds they produce can be detected and identified by all of us, no matter what culture we are born into.

We may not understand the poetic structures of other cultures or what the poems of other cultures are saying but we can recognize the rhyming sounds they make because they are universal. Because of these similarities and differences, it's important to realize that the feature you are now reading primarily explores the rhyming sounds of poetry, not rhyme itself.

Further and even more narrowly, this feature explores only how Western poets—especially Western poets who compose poetry in the English language—put rhyming sounds to use; it only secondarily and lightly touches on the rhyming poetry of other cultures and traditions and on the styles, poetic structures, ways of talking about poetic rhyme, and types of poetry used by poets in other cultures.

  • Explore more about the universality of poetic rhyme at the page called Topics In The Aesthetics Of Poetic Rhyme: click here. [link]

about the universality of rhyme in the arts

We've already mentioned poetry as one of the artistic fields in which rhymes universally appear. Here are some others.

creative writing

In literature, rhyme is not only an essential ingredient of rhyming verse, it has a major role in some kinds of plays, blank verse, free verse, and even occasionally in prose and other kinds of creative writing. The Muse calls these kinds of writing literature with a capital "L."

For example, rhyme is an essential component of poetical plays. What heights would Shakespeare, Marlowe, T. S. Eliot, or Edna St. Vincent Millay have climbed without rhyme?

less creative writing

Rhyme is also a component of less creative literary writing—in literature spelled with a lowercase "l." Nursery rhymes and limericks depend on it.

  • See what The Muse means by literature with a capital "L" and literature with a lowercase "l" at the section called "Literature" versus "literature": tap or click here.

non-creative writing

In ordinary, non-literary writing, rhyme appears in slogans, jingles, commercials, and in other kinds of written and oral communications.

We find rhymes on posters, in slogans, jokes, various forms of advertising, and even in speeches. It's piped into our homes and into public places via mass media such as TV, radio, film, and the Internet; we read it in magazines and newspapers and on billboards.


Rhyme is identity of sound in words. Strictly speaking, even though a rhyme can be melodious, rhyme only enters the realm of music tangentially by means of the lyric, which is an element of literature, not music. However, by analogy there exist striking similarities between rhyme, which is agreement or accord in the sounds of words, and harmony, which is agreement or accord in the sounds of musical tones.

As for lyrics, most, not all, lyrics rhyme. In rhyming lyrics, rhyme adds immeasurably to the meaning, impact, and enjoyment of the melody. It makes the lyrics far easier for the musicians and the audience to remember. Further, rhyme in the sounds of words that are sung works jointly with the musical harmonies embedded in the melody to produce a result in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.

DuBose Heyward, main lyricist for George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess

Why is the whole of a song with a rhyming lyric greater than the sum of its parts? Because the harmonies of melody are the musical homologue of those in rhyme; and sung lyrics are the musical homologue of poems that are read aloud.

  • Explore more about the relationship between rhyme and harmony at the page called Topics In The Aesthetics Of Poetic Rhyme: click here. [link]

We find rhyme in forms of the musical arts that are both highbrow and lowbrow. Rhyme makes appearances in art song lyrics, opera and operetta scores, recitative, Broadway and London musicals, Bollywood and Hollywood movie productions, hymns, spirituals, popular songs, love songs, and many, many other places.

One of the most prominent of these other places is the popular song lyric. Most lyrics in songs are true poems, even those in popular song lyrics such as Reggae, Rap, and Hip hop.

Sometimes the lyrics are written by the song writer himself, who usually gets the writing credit because he is the person who creates the melody; but most popular contemporary songs contain lyrics written by a lyricist especially to accompany the melody.

So important is the role of the lyricist that in many cases the lyricist is a specialist without whom the song writer would be paralyzed. Four outstanding examples: Lorenz Hart of the team of Rodgers and Hart, Ira Gershwin of the team of George and Ira Gershwin, Dubose Heyward, who wrote all of the distinguished lyrics in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and Stephen Sondheim in his collaboration with Leonard Bernstein for West Side Story and in his collaboration with Richard Rogers for Do I Hear a Waltz?

Even modern popular lyrics such as these, which many do not consider high art, can stand on their own merits as poetry; some as first-class poetry. Indeed, the majority of lyrics that appear in popular songs of all eras are poems in the full sense of the word and should be studied from that perspective as well as from the perspective of how they fulfill the music.

Others lyrics begin as actual poems that have music set to them later; one example of this type of lyric is the American national anthem.

Still other lyrics begin as traditional melodies for which lyricists write words, often long after the melodies are born. Bobby Burns' songs are one of the more prominent cases in point. He wrote lyrics for over 300 old Scots tunes out of his determination to preserve them.

  • Hear one of the most famous songs Bobby Burns' ever wrote, Auld Lang Syne, at the page called Western Musical Notation—Page 3: click here.
  • Explore the story behind Burns' music for Auld Lang Syne at The Muse Of Music's feature called Western Musical Notation—Page 4: click here.

More about this feature and the sounds of poetry

This feature contains [XX] pages. It is continued on the next pages. [check page count]

  • The Muse Of Literature invites you to continue exploring this feature on the next and subsequent pages: click here.

ETAF Recommends

The Poets' Corner by John Lithgow, the famous award-winning actor, is one of the most surprising and pleasing poetry collections for the family you'll ever find. John learned to love poetry growing up listening to his grandmother recite epic poems from memory and curling up in bed while his father read funny verses. Ever since, he has been an enthusiastic seeker of poetic experiences, whether reading, reciting, or listening to great poems. He tells this and other stories about his connection with the world of poetry in his personal introduction.

The fifty English language poems in the collection come from all eras, places, and genres. theyrange from long to short and from funny to tragic. Each is prefaced by John's own remarks describing the poet's life and work.

It's natural for a poetry-savvy actor like Lithgow, who reads poetry aloud to himself and others, to champion the idea that poetry should be heard by everyone. As a result, the book comes with a bonus MP3 CD recording which contains a reading of each poem by John or by other talented, known actors, including Eileen Atkins, Kathy Bates, Glenn Close, Billy Connolly, Jodie Foster, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Lynn Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Gary Sinise, and Sam Waterston.

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