Close-up: End Rhyme

Sarah Wardle on musical and mnemonic rhyme

Rhyme and metre remind us of the music of poetry. Poetry has its origins in song and a poem will often begin with a tune you want to follow through to its resolution. Each end rhyme is a signpost to an unknown destination. The closing couplet is the final missing piece.


End rhyme is not a defining feature of poetry, as blank and free verse indicate. But even unrhymed poetry contains the trace of rhyme, the final beat of a pentameter line, or the dying fall which ends a clause. Speakers should observe the stresses of end notes. A line should read a little like the clatter and ting of an old-fashioned typewriter reaching the margin. Couplets and quatrains should be performed like piano scales, pausing slightly at the turn before descent.

While rhyme is a musical device, it is also mnemonic. Nursery rhymes, hymns, pop songs, advertising jingles and political slogans lodge in the brain. The rhetoric of rhyme renders didactic poetry and epigrams memorable speech and ensures the mud-slinging of satire sticks. It contributes considerably to the comic effect of light verse and the cleverness of wit. Its neat fit brings closure, as at the ends of Shakespeare's scenes, or in the aphorisms of Webster's plays, and drives home the insight at the end of a sonnet.


Rhymes build momentum in a ballad, provide structure in a stanza and echo refrains in a villanelle. Long vowel rhymes are well-suited to lyric poems, inviting us to linger on them as they toll the hour for remembrance and reflection. In 'Cloths of Heaven' Yeats repeats end words, creating identical rhymes to cast a mesmerising spell. Consonance and half rhymes strike a minor key, setting the mood for lyric and elegy. The slight jarring of pararhyme and near rhyme can conjure darkness. In Wilfred Owen's 'Strange Meeting', the opposition of vowels enacts the eerie meeting of enemies.


Just as it is necessary to blend metrical language with the rhythms of ordinary speech, so rhymes should appear natural, not archaic, far-fetched or clichéd. Word order should not be inverted. Rhyme should operate on emotional and intellectual levels. Sound should echo sense. In Frost's 'Mowing' end rhymes whisper in time with his scythe. In Michael Longley's 'Terezin', the rhyme resounds like the absent harmony of the hundred silent violins. In Michael Donaghy's 'Present' the short closing rhyme measures a ticking moment. In Edward Thomas's 'The Cherry Trees' masculine and feminine rhymes marry images of confetti and decay, lamenting the young men.

A rhymed poem concluding in free verse can make its point as forcefully as a closing couplet. At the end of Eliot's 'Preludes' the music and rhythms of the city give way to a bleak statement. In Fleur Adcock's 'Against Coupling' reluctance for sex is underlined by the lack of rhymed pairing.


Poetry is often a displacement activity. Does rhyming work on the same principle? While the conscious mind is focused on hooking a rhyme, the subconscious is trawling its net wide to catch images and ideas. Rhyme is no strait-jacket: like a word association game, it can suggest new directions.


Rhyme is not reactionary, but an arena of change, like language itself. The rhymes of Tony Harrison's V. juxtapose clashing interest groups and converge in moments of unity, enacting the poem's politics. Different dialects and perspectives, and freshly coined words and phrases constantly update rhyming possibilities and offer the chance to originate, subvert and renew. Rhyme and metre are not fixed rules to be seen in black and white, but colours on a palette to mix and apply as you will.


Sarah Wardle's first collection is forthcoming from Bloodaxe in 2003.

Poetry News, Autumn 2002