Rhyming Sonnets

A sonnet is an echo chamber of sounds, a closed form, allowing sound patterns to form consciously, or otherwise, in the reader’s mind. Rhyming is part of that sound-patterning, and rhymes can appear either at the end, the beginning or inside each line.

Rhymes at the end of each line have characterised sonnets for centuries; they allow meaning to be highlighted, structure to be delineated.

I will denote end-of-line words with lower case letters: a,b,c,… so a rhyming couplet would be described as aa or bb or cc. A stanza with alternating end-rhymes would be abab. Rhymes may emphasise stanza breaks by ensuring there is a closing rhyme at the end of the stanza: denoted xbxb, where the end of lines 1 and 3 may not rhyme at all but the last line rhymes with line 2.

However, rhymes should not be obvious, unless for humorous effect; they should be below the perception of the reader operating at an unconscious level.

This can be hard to do with full rhyme, so some poets use pararhyme for a lighter touch, e.g., W.B. Yeats (Leda and the Swan) “up/drop”; S. Heaney (Fosterling) “land/mind”. These use assonance and consonance, alliteration in end-rhymes, with word sounds sometimes just chiming together, e.g. “justice/hostess”.

Achieving this natural effect may nudge you to explore different line endings and alternative phrasing during the drafting phase. Through the need for end rhymes, you may occasionally be obliged to search for a different word than your initial choice to make an original rhyme. This process can create the magic where the sonnet starts to write itself. You may be steered along an alternative path to that originally conceived, ideally to a better poem.

Rhymes facilitate poetry’s power to move, so it pays to invest some effort in this aspect of poetic structure. Here are some alternative rhyming schemes used throughout history of the sonnet form:

  • Petrachan: abba abba cde cde or abba abba cdcdcd. Note the “enclosing rhyme” pattern abba
  • Shakespearean: abab cdcd efef gg (attributed to Shakespeare but established earlier by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey). Note the “crossing rhyme” pattern abab
  • Spenserian: abab bcbc cdcd ee
  • Closed Terza rima or a chain-rhyme sonnet: aba bcb cdc ded ee
  • Meredithian: abba cddc effe ghhg
  • Rhyme royal: ababbcc ababbcc
  • English Rondel: ABab baAB baabAB (see my blog on the English Rondel).

In modern sonnets, many more variants have been devised, including unrhymed sonnets. There is also the form that I have devised with orphaned lines, abax b cdcx d efef, as used in The Arrow of Time [published in The Cannon’s Mouth Quarterly, p.48, Cannon Poets, Issue 71, March 2019, ISSN 1745-663003].

Sonnet Rhyme Schemes - Crop and title

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