Wednesday, November 14, 2012

When rhymes don't rhyme

Words are easy like the wind;
Faithful friends are hard to find.

That couplet from one of William Shakespeare's sonnets jars me a little bit because it doesn't quite rhyme. Many poets employ what I consider to be weak rhymes -- words like wind and find -- that are close, but not quite direct hits. Such near misses are considered quite acceptable in poetry, especially now in an age when most poetry has no rhymes at all.

I shouldn't complain. I once rhymed affliction with affection, but that was in light verse. I hold Ogden Nash to a different standard than William Shakespeare.

Perhaps I and others judge earlier poets too harshly, however. Bill Bryson writes in his book Mother Tongue that the way we pronounce many words has changed considerably over the centuries. "We know from Shakespeare's rhymes that knees, grease, grass, and grace all rhymed (at least more or less) and that clean rhymed with lane," he writes. At one time, he says, serve rhymed with carve and convert rhymed with depart.

"As late as the fourth decade of the eighteenth century," he writes, "Alexander Pope was rhyming obey with tea, ear with repair, give with believe, join with devine (cq), and many others that jar modern ears. William Cowper, who died in 1800, was still able to rhyme way with sea. July was widely pronounced 'Julie' until about the same time."

Some pronunciations have changed more in the United States than in England. In the U.S., for example, clerk rhymes with work. In England it rhymes with lark. Thus, rhymes by British poets may not sound as satisfying to American ears as do rhymes by American poets, and vice versa in Great Britain.

So those of us who expect rhymes to actually rhyme perhaps need to give poets, especially long-dead poets, a little break.

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