Wallace Stevens’s Place in the History of English Rhyming

Anthony Madrid

A Talk Given at the 43rd Annual Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900
     Transcript, 27 February 2015

Without anecdote, banter, originality, or charm, I am going to plunge directly into recounting the history of rhyme in modern English. This history is not well known—and, for the most part, even those who know it do not know it. Yet no non-trivial account of Wallace Stevens’s artistic practice can do without a reckoning on this head. And so, I shall tell you what I know.

In the middle of the 16th century, rhyme was still comfortable on its throne. One would no more attempt to write a poem without rhyme than one would today attempt to make a song without a rhythm. The drive to make a song is partly a drive to channel rhythm; the two are very tightly bound up with each other. Only some kind of egg-headed pervert, consciously setting out to mark herself as a visitor from Mars, would ever dream of doing otherwise. And THAT is the level of hold that rhyme had, in 1550. If you wanted poetry at all, you wanted rhyme. It wasn’t like today. People lusted for it.

The great first challenge to rhyme’s sovereignty—a challenge from which (in a sense) it was never really to recover—was the work of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the other Elizabethan playwrights, who wrote in blank verse for the stage. The achievement of those poets was more or less unmistakable, and yet: a play is not, after all, a poem. A lyric poet sitting or standing in the audience and watching Henry IV, Part 1 might very easily imagine that the artistic criteria that applied to his or her own labors were surely quite different from those that applied to playwriting. The abandonment of rhyme might seem to make sense in the context of writing headlong torrents of passionate and spontaneous-seeming talk, but a poem was another matter. At any rate, poets (with VERY few exceptions) did not turn their backs on rhyme. Indeed, when Shakespeare or Marlowe wrote what they thought was a poem, they went straight back to rhyme.

As for the rhymes themselves—and what counted as a “good” rhyme—that was easy. One, a rhyme was good if the two words’ endings sounded more or less alike, and two, there was a strong preference for what we now call “masculine” rhymes—ones where the words in the rhyme pair terminate with stressed syllables (say, “tin” and “violin,” as opposed to “trying” and “frying”). Aside from these considerations, one rhyme to the Elizabethans was as good as another.

But an interesting change was in store. Around the time of the Stuart Restoration (1660), we observe something odd. Certain rhymes—certain whole categories of rhyme—were decommissioned. Rhyme couplings that had been perfectly acceptable to poets just fifty or sixty years before either disappear or become quite, quite scarce. In the interest of brevity, I will tell you, right now—abstractly—which kinds of rhyme were more or less suddenly excluded. It was rhyme pairs wherein the two words bore to each other an essential semantic link. That is to say: the actual meanings of the two words in question could be a problem. For the Elizabethan poet engaged in intuitively judging the aptness or inaptness of a given rhyme pair, the meanings of the two words did not matter. For the Restoration poet, the meanings did.

I have to give you a few examples. There are hardly any rhyme pairs more common in Elizabethan poetry than {me/thee} {mine/thine} {he/ she}. However, the words in those rhyme pairs are all conventional opposites. {He/she}, {mine/thine}—these are terms that occupy a neatly bisected dyad (male and female, self and other)—and also these terms happen to be supremely elementary words (personal pronouns—of which there are only a handful, each in a sense implying all the others). What I am saying to you is: The rhyme {me/thee} becomes quite, quite rare in the middle of the 17th century, whereas it was ridiculously common in the 16th. Other opposites: {ever/never} {hither/thither} {many/any} {used/ abused} {kind/unkind} {sad/glad} {one/none} {conceal/reveal} . . .

Get the picture? This kind of rhyme pairing is far more common than you would think. And I have checked—I have literally checked—and I’m here to tell you: They either disappear, or become VERY scarce.

Opposites are only one category. It would be tedious for me to list and illustrate all of them. Synonyms and near-synonyms like {shake/ quake} and {moan/groan}; genus-and-species relationships like {berry/ cherry}; and then just pairs where the words are super basic and share space in a crisply defined elemental category, like {hall/wall} {door/floor} {shirt/skirt} {mother/brother}.


Now the question is why. Why would they do this. Why would they do it to themselves. Was not rhyming already difficult enough? Was not the paucity of English rhymes—complained about at least since the time of Chaucer—already a severe enough obstacle to the poet’s task—? And here we come to a very important point.

Number one, they did not effect this change consciously. It was not a conscious strategy. They never discuss it. I have searched high and low, through table talk, prefaces, letters, diaries, disquisitions—everything. They never discuss it. You can see them doing it by running your finger down the right side of all those poems, and doing statistics on what you see. But they don’t talk about it.

Very well—so why would they unconsciously do it? There are a number of intriguing hypotheses, but I shall not waste your time with the wrong ones. I’ll simply tell you the theory that by far tallies best with the observable facts. It’s this.

They avoided rhyme pairs such as those described because they sensed—intuited—that such rhyme pairs were liable to weaken the effect they were attempting to secure. They believed that part of rhyme’s magic depended precisely on the two words in the rhyme pair having nothing to do with each other in terms of meaning. If the first of the two words inherently and unavoidably supplied the other (for example, moan/groan or he/she), then the poem would lose what might be called the “metaphysical” effect of yoking together dissimilar words by discovery of occult resemblances. The power of the occult would be lost.

All rhymers of every century believed—wordlessly, mutely, even incoherently believed—that rhyme, by punctuating and thus amplifying the effects of a poem’s rhythm, helped to put a kind of spell on the reader, inducing unintelligible pleasure—and acquiescence to whatever was being said. They thought rhyme was a drug. And the unconscious inhibition against rhymes that might be supposed to interrupt the drug effect was simply one more development in the general 17th- and 18th-century program for improving English versification.

It must be pointed out that under no circumstances was the reader supposed to pause over a rhyme pair in order to savor it for its own sake. Such a proceeding runs counter to the spirit of rhyming—it breaks the trance—it interrupts the spell. This is part of why the old poets were perfectly comfortable reusing the same rhyme pairs over and over and over.

          {Life/strife} {death/breath} {fire/desire} {love/move/prove}
                             {grace/face} {youth/truth}

—these rhyme pairs are in VERY heavy rotation through all the centuries of English rhyming, and no one complained of this—until rhyme was safely in its grave. Anyway the bottom line is: You weren’t really supposed to look at rhyme—you were supposed to feel it, as one feels the beat of music.

It was not a code, it was not supposed to have any intellectual content—and best of all, it was not a show of discipline. It was a drug; it added power; it was seductive. The poet rejected {sad/glad} and {shake/quake} for the same reason he or she rejected rhyming sad with sad—such rhymes seemed to defeat the point of rhyming . . . .

Now, the rhyme sensibility I am describing characterizes the whole of the Augustan Era. The tide rolls back, and these secret rules relax, precisely when Romanticism comes in. A key moment is the publication of a three-volume work of vast influence and importance that is seldom slobbered over today—Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, a semi-scholarly anthology containing (among much else) many, many folk ballads from the 15th and 16th centuries. Those poems went straight into the bloodstreams of poets like Blake and Coleridge and Wordsworth. The material, with its emotional rawness and bold narratives and lack of argumentation and fuss, seemed to those poets (and bazillions of others) like the shot in the arm English poetry had been waiting for. Poets set about imitating the old ballads, and reimported into English artpoetry many of the very rhyme practices that had been set aside. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a very good demonstration of this. Songs of Innocence and Experience is another.

And so we come to Curious George, Lord Byron. A perfect dissertation-writer’s darling. Because: he represents, in a single individual, the key split.

The dividing wall between the old-time rhymer’s desire for rhyme as an intoxicating agent, a figment of the rhythm completely operating below the reader’s intellectual radar—and the sensibility of today’s poet, who tends to subject each individual rhyme pair to judgments related to originality and wit. This dividing wall, I say, ran right through the median longitudinal fissure between the two halves of Byron’s alcohol- and sex-soaked brain.

His poetic commitments were thoroughly Augustan. He idolized Dryden and Pope, scorned Keats, followed the secret rhyme rules even more than his models—when he was writing his serious stuff (Childe Harolde, for instance). But when he wrote the poems on which his modern reputation largely rests, he did something new. He made joke rhymes.

Well—“new.” There had indeed been joke rhymes before—notably in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (which, back then, was still read and studied by everybody) but Butler’s masterpiece was a sharp-fanged satire on the Puritans—Byron’s Beppo and Don Juan are subversive—but they’re not exactly satires.

​                                        [10 minutes]

Butler is prosecuting a burlesque. Extreme roughness of meter and rhymes-wherever-you-find-them contribute—metaphorically—to the point being everywhere advanced, namely that the Puritans were a degenerate herd of inverted beings—preposterous and annoying. Byron is fundamentally gentler. His “spoof element” is directed, on the one hand, at contem- porary sexual mores and, on the other, at readers’ earnest and quadrilateral assumptions about the dignity of verse. When Byron deploys bizarre never- before-seen rhymes like {intellectual/hen-peck’d you all}, which he of course does over and over, he is (in those places) spoofing poetry itself. It’s a form of liberating anti-poetry . . .

Let me read you the stanza from Don Juan with the {intellectual/hen- peck’d you all} rhyme—

              ’Tis pity learned virgins ever wed
              With persons of no sort of education,
              Or gentleman, who, though well born and bred,
              Grow tired of scientific conversation;
              I don’t choose to say much upon this head,
              I’m a plain man, and in a single station;
              But—oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
              Inform us truly have they not hen-peck’d you all?

That move at the end there—that move—is brilliant and funny and (this is key) memorable—the rhyme pair, by itself, {intellectual/hen-peck’d you all}, can be—and has been—detached from the poem and adduced as an example of inspired wit in itself. This is key. It is analogous to the exhilarating effect achieved when an actor in a film suddenly turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience in the movie theater. The pretense of “suspension of disbelief” is cast aside and the medium openly acknowledges its own artifice. With a wink.

Consider for a moment how much THAT runs counter to the spirit of the old rhymers. They wanted rhyme to operate below the reader’s intellectual radar —the ultimate no-no was for the “actor” to suddenly look at the camera. That was not done. Remember—no matter what the poets were up to as far as what they were saying, their unquestioned intuitive commitment apropos of their prosody was to protect the magic at all costs. The issue of wit and originality and portability of a given rhyme pair did not exist. With Byron, it suddenly exists.

In the long run, this development killed rhyme. It suddenly planted in people’s heads the fatal suspicion that perhaps many, many rhymes should now be considered clichéd . . . The idea gradually took hold that a “good” rhyme is one that was never heard of before. A good rhyme was one worth quoting in itself. The holistic effect—where it is by no means the individual rhyme that is important, but rather the fact that the whole piece rhymes—began, in the early 19th century, to erode in favor of the sense that individual rhyme pairs should delight, irrespective of the poem to which they are attached. This new conception grew and gained force for about one hundred years—and then rhyme more or less collapsed.

In art poetry, that is. In songs, we are still living in the year 1550. But in books of art poetry, we live in rhyme’s rubble. And here we come to Wallace Stevens.

ON THE ONE HAND, Wallace Stevens is what could be called a “classic” rhymer. If one examines his rhyme pairs (or rhyme clusters), one finds very few exotic items—items that could be expected to call attention to themselves for any reason whatsoever. I have with me a copy of The Collected Poems in which every single rhyme is marked with colored ink—and I also have a convenient hand-list of those rhymes, all of ’em written out in microscopic handwriting on two or three large sheets of paper, so that one can survey the whole field with relative ease. And I am prepared to announce that 99% of Wallace Stevens’s rhymes are on the model of {hail/tail}, {near/ clear} {ended/mended} . . . {hat/sat}. NATURALLY there are outstanding exceptions—and perhaps there are people in this room who could supply some examples off the tops of their heads—My own example would be:

​                    {Übermenschlichkeit | would soon come right}

But still. Have a look at the Collected and you will see miles and miles of—{parks/marks} {flies/skies} {play/day} {around/sound}

Even during the most candy-colored phase of Stevens’s writing, virtually all of his rhyme pairs not only could appear in a poem by Alexander Pope—they demonstrably do appear in poems by Alexander Pope.

MOREOVER, it will be observed that Stevens seldom violates the 17th/18th-century rhyme principle that I sketched earlier. Again, we cannot expect rigid consistency when we are dealing with prosodic practices that are carried out more or less unconsciously. Still, Stevens is about as consistent as Dryden or Pope or Swift or Samuel Johnson with regard to avoiding rhyme pairs wherein the participating words bear to each other any strong link besides that of sound. In these respects, as I say, Stevens is a classic rhymer. And this should surprise no one, given Stevens’s commitments to the “irrational” in poetry, the deep drug effect of which I’ve made so much. (And perhaps we will hear more on that theme from some of the other speakers, this afternoon.)

HOWEVER, Stevens contrasts sharply with any normal/classical rhyme praxis, insofar as he does NOT normally use rhyme throughout any given poem. The total number of Stevens poems in which the rhymes show up “on schedule” in the way that they would in a pre-20th-century poem, is eleven. (I counted. It’s eleven. And of course they’re almost all in Harmonium and Ideas of Order.) Stevens pretty clearly preferred to deploy rhyme effects in a “sneak up” style. A word at the end of one stanza will turn out, upon reading the first line of the next stanza, to have been half of a rhyme pair. That kind of thing.

This does not exactly depart from the old intuitions about what rhyme is for. The rhymes still work by delivering “unintelligible pleasure.” But Stevens’s approach does demote rhyme to the status of a “local grace”—same thing as, say, alliteration. And so, whereas the old-school rhymer accepted transfusing his or her whole poem with a kind of good (and indeed super-human) artificiality, Stevens allows rhyme to come and go as it pleases, thus entailing sudden changes in the pitch of artificiality. Rhyme plays peek- a-boo . . .

I want to suggest, in closing, that this is why Stevens’s poems rhyme less and less, as one travels through his Collected. His commitments were always to rhyme-as-drug, but his increasingly serious (and even liturgical) sensibility made him find less and less use for sudden intrusions of this type of artificiality—to the point where a poem like “The Auroras of Autumn” has exactly five little wallflower rhymes in it—out of 240 lines.

Much more could be said about all this, but, having timed this presentation in rehearsal, I know I am at seventeen minutes. I therefore ask your indulgence and cede the floor to my fellow panel members. Please see me afterwards if you would like to have a look at a list of Stevens’s favorite rhyme words. Thank you.

Four months later

I wonder if everyone remembers the children’s sci-fi novel A Wrinkle in Time—? There’s a bit in there, in the beginning, where one of the witches (or somebody) is explaining how they’re going to travel vast distances in space-time without having to travel barely at all. There’s an illustration (if I remember right) of an ant walking on a string. The sci-fi concept (which L’Engle calls a tesseract) (and which apparently has nothing to do with what mathematicians call a tesseract) was that if somebody would simply pinch two places on the string and then bring the pinched spots together, the ant could take one step and voilà: When the string is pulled taut again, the ant is, like, way over here. So, if you could just do that with the fabric of the universe,—dot dot dot.

Why do I mention this. Because it’s my new metaphor for what rhyme was supposed to do. A “vast distance” is traversed instantly, magically, efficiently. Glide and pride are “way far apart”; so, to get from one to the other in a flash is neat, excellent, satisfactory. Glide and slide are “close by each other”; so, to get from one to the other is like the ant merely taking a step on the unadjusted string. See? It’s not like the ant doesn’t get anywhere, but still.

Here I perceive a danger, though—one that I don’t sufficiently address in the Louisville paper, above. The problem is it’s really hard to hold fast to the idea that none of this business was conscious. Poets were not afraid that their readers were going to notice that Rhyme Word “A” and Rhyme Word “B” were synonyms. The poets were not choosing rhyme words based on articulated theories, and they had 0% anxiety that their readers were going to have, hold, contemplate or apply such theories. None of these people knew what they were doing. They were proceeding intuitively.

And this is precisely why rhyme was so vulnerable to an attack like Milton’s (in the notorious front matter to Paradise Lost). Milton did the thing that every good little English major does: He explained the fact of a poem’s rhyming as a metaphor. It’s a metaphor for bondage, slavery. You don’t want to be a slave do you? Thought not. So let’s get back to “ancient liberty.” Homer and so on. No one had a reply for that! What were they going to say? That rhyme isn’t a metaphor for anything, that it has no inherent meaning? That it’s actually arbitrary with respect to the theme?

Even if they had consciously thought that, they would have been ashamed to say it. Yet it’s true. Rhyme has no more thematic content in itself than does a comma. Which is to say it has a function, but it does not say anything. It conduces to certain effects. If you want those effects, you rhyme; if you don’t care about those effects (or can secure ’em some other way), you can dispense with rhyme.

A simple enough thought! but the old poets were almost medically incapable of having it, because they couldn’t bear the idea that rhyme and meter contributed nothing to the theme. Their intuition was that if any element of a poem is arbitrary with respect to what the poem is saying, then that element is a flaw and shouldn’t be there. And even to this day, the little nerds write papers “justifying” the presence of rhyme in such-and-such passage, by showing that it acts as a metaphor for harmony. If Romeo says something, and Juliet’s reply rhymes with what Romeo said, that fact itself is symbolic of their love. And if two people who hate each other’s guts do the exact same thing, the rhyme is ironic.

THAT is the kind of idea that would only occur to someone who doesn’t love rhyme but is struggling to praise it anyhow. “He turns from the picnic and feeds on the ants.” Or let me put it this way. Imagine a future world run by robots that have no idea why humans enjoyed music. Imagine them “explaining” the beat of music as a metaphor for order and regularity, and concluding therefrom that the presence of a beat in the songs of, say, the Rolling Stones is ironic, because—

But enough. I’m starting to get upset again. Lemme just end on this key point, namely that any idea founded on the assumption that readers were gonna be squinting at the rhyme words—is wrong. No one thought people were gonna do that, and they didn’t do it. The only person who would do that is someone who gets off on taking apart clocks to see how they work. And the problem is that nowadays all we have are people who take apart clocks; we don’t have people who love rhyme in itself, who lust for it.

Granted, you do see seedlings, people letting rhyme back into their poems a little bit here and a little there, but they don’t let the whole poem rhyme; they’re not ready to go that far. Instead they use rhyme like they do alliteration. A “local grace.” One senses they’re still kind of ashamed of it. But as for me, I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.

Rhyme is a drug. Rhyme is black magic.