Sunday, 11 December 2011


Of all the features of poetry that students learn how to spot, with little understanding as to why, rhyme tops the list. Across the country students spend fruitless hours (well, minutes anyway) working out the rhyme scheme of poems. Having dutifully written out ABBA CDDC EFGEFG (a Petrarchan sonnet, in case you're wondering) they then stop and wonder why they just did that. When asked to write a paragraph about rhyme, many struggle to get beyond that old favourite "it helps the poem to flow."

Of course in studying sonnets there are useful things that the rhyme scheme can point you to- the division between the octave and the sestet for instance, or in Shakespearean sonnets the separation of the final couplet. However even these observations can seem mechanistic and unpoetic. Surely the study of poetry should not be reduced to this sort of arithmetic calculation.

In fact I believe that the power of rhyme in great poetry is best understood in exactly the same way as I have sought to explain the power of alliteration and assonance- through an understanding of connotations. The effect of rhyme is much the same as the effect of alliteration and assonance. When the ear detects that two or more words rhyme the brain subconsciously focuses a little more attention on the words, and links them together. Therefore a great poet can use rhyme to strengthen the power of individual words, to link connected words to bring out their connotations more strongly, or to force unexpected links into our minds.

With such a wealth of great rhyming poetry to take examples from I have decided to focus on just one, My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning. Because of the enjambment and the way the rhythm of the poem follows the fluency of the Duke's speech it is not immediately obvious that this poem rhymes, which makes it an ideal subject for this sort of analysis.

The use of rhyme that first strikes the attention is in line 11
"And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus."

Here it is a simple case of rhyme for emphasis. The word "durst" is the first hint of real menace in the urbane Duke's narrative, and the rhyme gives it even more force. The menace is carried forward by the link to "first", which helps us hear the Duke's suppressed anger and implicit threat to the listener.

A similar effect is used in line 16
                                     "‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’"
Here it is the Duke's emphasis we hear. Since these are the Fra Pandolf's words, quoted by the Duke, we hear not only the painter's emphasis on the words with connotations to do with his art, but the Dukes contemptuous satirising of that emphasis too.

Perhaps the clearest example of this technique of mutual reinforcement is in  line 27, where the similar connotations of "mule" and "fool" compensate for the slightly forced rhyme
" The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace"
However the most interesting use of rhyme in this poem, and what helps give it its menacing power, is the way it reveals the connotations the Duke (rather than the reader) sees in words. In the central section, as the Duke comes as close as he ever does to letting the mask of his urbanity slip he says
"She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling?"

To most readers the words "thanked" and "ranked", "named" and "blamed" have utterly different connotations and would not naturally be linked. Yet to the Duke all four words clearly have powerful connotations of prestige, authority, droit de Seigneur and his unalienable right to do whatever the hell he wants because he is the DUKE. Thanking is nothing to do with simple gratitude- it is a tribute owing to his rank. A name is not a simple signifier, it is central to concepts of rightness, appropriateness and correct conduct.

Perhaps the strongest example of this use of rhyme to reveal the Duke's twisted priorities is in the initially unremarkable couplet at line 25
"Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,"
For most of us, the subconscious linkage that the rhyme draws between the brooch and the beauty of the sunset would point out the insignificance of the former against the magnificence of the latter- compare "her breast" with "the West". However clearly for the Duke it is the other way round. The magnificence of the sunset is utterly unimportant as compared to the brooch HE gave her. The problem for him is that, unaccountably, the Duchess does not see it that way.

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