Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Rhyme and meter, part 2: Non-regular rhyme

Try this little experiment.  Read these passages of rhymed poetry:

Girls and boys, come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day;
Leave your supper, and leave your sleep,
And come with your playfellows into the street.
Come with a whoop, come with a call,
Come with a good will or not at all.
Up the ladder and down the wall,
A half-penny roll will serve us all.
You find milk, and I'll find flour,
And we'll have a pudding in half an hour.
                                                              --Mother Goose

* * *

Hush-a-by baby
On the tree top,
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
And down will fall baby
Cradle and all.

* * *

He holds him with his skinny hand,
"There was a ship," quoth he.
"Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!"
Eftsoons his hand dropped he.
                                     --Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner

* * *

Your pain still hangs in air,
Sharp motes of it suspended;
The voice of your despair —
That also is not ended:

When near your death a friend
Asked you what he could do,
"Remember me," you said.
We will remember you.

Once when you went to see
Another with a fever
In a like hospital bed,
With terrible hothouse cough
And terrible hothouse shiver
That soaked him and then dried him,
And you perceived that he
Had to be comforted,

You climbed in there beside him
And hugged him plain in view,
Though you were sick enough,
And had your own fears too.
                                           --Thom Gunn, "Memory Unsettled"

* * *

He thought he saw an Elephant
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
"At length I realize," he said,
"The bitterness of life!"

He thought he saw a Buffalo
Upon the chimney-piece:
He looked again, and found it was
His Sister's Husband's Niece.
"Unless you leave this house," he said,
"I'll send for the police!"

he thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
"The one thing I regret," he said,
"Is that it cannot speak!"
                                       --Lewis Carroll, "The Mad Gardener's Song."

* * *

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

* * *

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

* * *

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

* * *

Then gin I thinke on that which Nature sayd,
Of that same time when no more Change shall be,
But stedfast rest of all things firmely stayd
Vpon the pillours of Eternity,
That is contrayr to Mutabilitie:
For, all that moueth, doth in Change delight:
But thence-forth all shall rest eternally
With Him that is the God of Sabbaoth hight:
O thou great Sabbaoth God, graunt me that Sabaoths sight.
                                                               --Spenser, The Mutabilitie Cantos

* * *

Ye blessèd creatures, I have heard the call
Ye to each other make; I see
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee;
My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all.
                                                               --The Intimations Ode

Each of them contains what Pope (the purest of English rhymers) would regard as a false rhyme.  And not only Pope, but Pope can set the standard.  How quickly do you notice them?  What words did you think rhymed that didn't, at least by what you might call standard standards?

Anyhow, I am going to propose that we call these non-regular rhymes ("irregular rhymes" would be misleading, since we're used to talking about as irregularly rhyming poems, e.g. poems, Lycidas).  Non-regular rhymes would be pairs that register as rhymes the way irregular past tenses register as past tenses, without our generally noticing them.

In my next post I want to think about how and why they work.

Here I'll just draw attention to the way Auden's rhymes are sometimes an anthology or cento of rhymes like those above:
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful. --Auden, "Lullaby"
We sense rhyme here, and it takes a while to figure out what rhymes with what.  That's an interesting perceptual combination.

The second in a series of short posts about rhyme's relation to meter

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rhyme and meter, part 1: Occasional irregularity

In grammar we talk about irregular verbs (and sometimes nouns: child/children, e.g.). Steven Pinker points out that children learn the past tense of irregular verbs very early, before they learn the rules for forming past tenses. They know that the past tense of "go" is "went" in just the same way that they know that the past tense of "talk" is "talked." When they get a little older, though, they twig to the rule, and start applying it to irregular verbs: "I goed to the playground." They use irregular verbs correctly before we use them incorrectly, and then we have to relearn the irregularities.

Here's how I would describe the phenomenology of this piece of grammatical knowledge: we learn past tense (or aspect) and fully internalize it. "Went" is as fully the past tense of "go" as "talked" is of "talk." Or it would actually be better to reverse the order: "Talked" bears the same, completely transparent, relation to "talk" as "went" does to "go." First we learn transparency.

Then, scientists in the nursery, we develop the rules of this transparency. Not that we specify them for ourselves. The rules are transparent too. They too are natural, and unspecified (cf. Witggenstein on rule following and Hannah Ginsborg on "primitive normativity"). We go for what "sounds right." But then we misapply the natural and give up on an earlier natural, internalized, disposition to say "went." Two natural and transparent rules come into some conflict, and we go with the one that's more recent and has a wider application: that one too sounds right, at least for a while.

But our elders correct us.  We relearn the irregular verbs, and return to a more archaic natural transparency in their use. How much this is a return, and how much a newly internalized rule, can probably not be quite determined, but I suspect that the irregular verbs hang on, like all very basic pieces of language (e.g. the near-universal preservation of the proto-Indo-European word for hand in Indo-European languages), because they occur so early in our own individual experiences of language.  I think that we return with a sort of archaic relief to the familiar irregularities of our early childhood.

It doesn't matter very much whether that's true or not, but if it is, it may shed some light on what will follow in my next post - where I will propose adding a new term to the lexicon of rhyme.

This is the first of a series of short posts about rhyme's relation to meter.