Enclosing Rhymes

Previously, I laid some of the groundwork to discussing the rhyming structures in sonnets. To some, that will make this an interesting article. To others, they may have some recent paintwork that they’d prefer to watch dry instead. This month I’m going to cover some of the details, so stand by for some terminology.

Some apparently good news: there are no fixed rules. You can rhyme or not rhyme or partially rhyme where you like. However, this risks you creating unintended effects if you are not aware of what you are doing. An accidental rhyme in an unrhymed verse could stand out in a way you did not intend. So, as usual with art and crafts, it pays to learn the rules, internalise them, before you go on to break them. Here then are some basics.

One could consider a sonnet as seven pairs of lines, each pair ending with words that we’ll denote “a” and “b”. A couplet is a line with the same endings, such as “aa” or “bb”. Lines could be of different length. Put two lines like this together and you have a pair-rhyming scheme. If instead we take two different endings, each succeeding pair could either repeat or reflect that pattern, so ab followed by ab or ab followed by ba.

This means these paragraphs of four lines or quatrains would rhyme abba or abab. Abab is called a cross-rhyme. The former is called, variously, an enclosed or envelope rhyme. It works by suspending the rhyme of the first ending just a little bit longer and has an elegant or elegiac effect.

With rhyming, you are playing with expectations in your reader by repeating the same sound at regular intervals, like a bell tolling. Simply put, a long sequence of lines all ending in “a” will, when broken with a b, a different bell, defeat their expectation.

Over centuries of sonnet writing, probably all the possible variations have been tried, including unrhymed couplets (I’ll denote these xx). Repeated throughout, these create an unrhymed sonnet. Remember, that does not mean there cannot be internal rhymes, where words within the text rhyme with other words in the same line or other phrases nearby. As I warned, a long sequence of unrhymed line-ends with an accidental rhyme xxxx xaax may jar with the reader and break the spell of your narrative. This is why you should understand the basics.

In a stanza of three lines, there are may also be chain-rhymes, so study what happens here: aba bcb cdc … The middle rhyme becomes an envelope rhyme for the next and so on. This creates a strong forward momentum.

When a rhyme pattern you have set up changes this can create the sense of a change in direction of the work. Such a change may occur at the Volta or turn of a sonnet. For example, where you may have been rhyming abab abab, you change to cde cde for the last six lines.

As usual, this can only ever be an overview and I commend a good introductory book to you if this interests you. For example, Stephen Fry’s “The Ode Less Travelled”, Hutchinson, ISBN 0 09 179661 x

There is also a whole zoo of different categories of rhymes from the chest-beating silverback of the full rhyme to the hummingbird of slant rhymes. Perhaps I’ll talk about these in a future blog.

On a completely different matter, I had some good news this month becoming the Runner Up in the EarlyWorks Press Competition 2020. Results at:


How to use rhyme in sonnets

Copyright Clifford Liles, 21 September 2020

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