To rhyme or not to rhyme.

The age-old question of whether verse that does not rhyme, and more particularly verse that does not end-rhyme, can actually be called poetry pops it head up again, as it does on a very regular basis.

In the pages of today’s Guardian Review Ruth Padel,  currently Chair of the UK Poetry Society, robustly defends ‘the wrong sort of poetry’, meaning poetry that does not rhyme, against the traditionalists who claim that rhyme is integral to poetry.

 ..the real rallying flag for the rhyme police is end rhyme in a rhyming scheme. This battle, though, was fought over 400 years ago by cutting-edge practitioners whose blank verse (begun in English around 1540 following Italy’s versi sciolti da rima, “verse freed from rhyme”, developed roughly 1530) was blazing out of the language.

In 1602, Thomas Campion attacked “the unaptnesse of Rime in Poesie”. Bad poets, he said, “rime a man to death”. The “popularitie of Rime creates as many Poets as a hot summer flies”. Rhyme should be used “sparingly, lest it offend the eare with tedious affectation”.

Samuel Daniel wrote furiously back “proving”, he said, “that Rhyme is the fittest harmonie of words that comportes with our Language”. Campion, this traitor to rhyme, has called “our measures grosse, vulgare, barbarous”. If it be so, Daniel snarled sarcastically, “we have lost much labour to no purpose”. Ben Jonson weighed in with a satirical poem, “A Fit of Rime against Rime”, accusing rhyme of “Wresting words from their true calling, / Propping verse for fear of falling”; of “Jointing syllables, drowning letters, / Fastening vowels as with fetters”.

The nub of Campion’s protest was laziness and banality. It is fatally easy to rhyme badly. If you rhyme, it had better be fresh, better be good. Otherwise it doesn’t just spoil your poem, it betrays rhyme itself.

Milton was against it. Rhyme acts on poets as “a constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse, than else they would have exprest them”. Paradise Lost does not end-rhyme, nor much Tennyson, Wordsworth’s Prelude and Excursion, or most of Shakespeare’s plays. “As soon as lazy thou” (Jonson says to “rime”) “wert known / All good poetry hence was flown.”

One wonders how this argument, or something very like it  has got to be made before the traditionalists get the message that not all poetry has to rhyme. Mind you, I suppose that in a culture has a great liking for rap, with it’s very emphatic rhymes, it’s not altogether surprising that the message fails to get through.


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