Many poems rhyme, but there is often more going on in terms of the sounds of the words than just what happens at the ends of the lines. This lesson explores some of the nuances of rhyme and sound in poetry.
More Than Rhymes
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick. Many people grow up hearing nursery rhymes and by the time they’re in school, they have a pretty good ear for rhyming sounds. The perfect rhymes in these little verses are satisfying. ‘Quick’ rhymes neatly with ‘stick’, but it also has a sound relationship with the name ‘Jack,’ which functions to make the nursery rhyme even more memorable.
The AP Literature curriculum asks students to become skilled and careful readers of poetry, and a big part of poetry is the sound of the words. So, let’s take a closer listen to sound.
Acoustics refers to all the sounds in a poem. Rhyme is one common acoustic element, but there are many other ways that writers can connect words. Consonance is when two words end in the same consonant sound.
In our nursery rhyme, ‘Jack’ and ‘quick’ have a relationship of consonance. In the same way, ‘enough’ and ‘staff’ have a consonant relationship even though the ‘f’ sounds at the ends of the words are made with different letters.Another way to link words acoustically is through assonance, which is when two words have the same vowel sound. Words like ‘Jack’ and ‘plan’ or ‘clean’ and ‘street’ have a relationship of assonance.
So, what’s the big deal? Assonance and consonance are ways to connect words through sounds. The ear picks up on those connections, but it’s not as strong as a rhyme.
Emily Dickinson, in her poem I Like to See It Lap the Miles ends her lines with consonance rather than rhyme. She connects ‘up’ with ‘step’ and ‘peer’ with ‘pare’.
The overall effect of this weaker acoustic connection is to make the reader feel uneasy and confused. In fact, the whole poem is a riddle, so confusion is warranted! Dickinson uses her acoustic elements to accomplish this effect.
How Syllables Work
Every syllable in English has three places for sound. There’s a spot for an initial consonant sound, a spot for a vowel sound, and a final spot for another consonant sound. If you add more sounds than that, you start a new syllable.
Let’s use the word ‘sound’ as an example. It begins with an initial ‘s’ sound, it has the ‘ou’ vowel in the middle, and it ends with a final ‘nd’ consonant sound.For two syllables to have a consonance relationship, they just need the final sounds to be the same. Assonance means that middle vowel is the same, and rhyme is consonance plus assonance with a different beginning! ‘Sound’ rhymes with ‘mound’ because they have the same vowel ‘ou,’ the same ending ‘nd’, and different beginnings. No wonder rhyme is more satisfying to the ear; it contains both consonance and assonance.
Stressed and Unstressed Syllables
There is another hitch though. For a rhyme to be exact, the rhyming syllables have to both be stressed. You see, in English, every syllable is either loud (stressed) or soft (unstressed). Take the name ‘Elvis.
‘ There are two syllables. The first one is stressed and the second one is unstressed. You can hear that when you say the name – Elvis. For something to rhyme with Elvis it would have to match with the first syllable, a word like ‘pelvis’. If it matched the second syllable, the unstressed one, the rhyme won’t sound quite right.
The name ‘Elvis’ doesn’t exactly rhyme with the word ‘this’. It’s close, but the stresses don’t line up. Here’s another example, from a famous poem, ‘When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.’ Can you hear how that’s a little awkward? Because the stresses don’t match up, we call that anisobaric rhyme, meaning a rhyme of unequal pressures.
With these new tools in your tool belt, let’s take a look at a full poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:’The courage that my mother hadWent with her, and is with her still:Rock from New England quarried;Now granite in a granite hill.The golden brooch my mother woreShe left behind for me to wear;I have no thing I treasure more:Yet, it is something I could spare.
Oh, if instead she’d left to meThe thing she took into the grave!–That courage like a rock, which sheHas no more need of, and I have.’The first four lines of the poem connect the words ‘had’ and ‘quarried’. That’s a pretty weak acoustic relationship.
It’s consonance, but ‘quarried’ ends in an unstressed syllable, so it’s a weak form of consonance. Well, the poem is about someone feeling weak about the death of her mother!Millay is using the acoustics of the poem to help the reader feel the doubt that the speaker feels. Also, she has some words with abrasive sounds, like the word ‘rock’ in line three. Cacophony is the term for words that don’t sound pleasant. The opposite of that is euphony, or the term for pleasing sounds. A word of warning though: one person’s cacophony is another person’s euphony, so don’t base much of your interpretations on these two devices.
Back to the poem. Once the speaker starts talking about the mother and her legacy, the rhymes get stronger as the speaker becomes more confident. Pairs like ‘still’ and ‘hill’ or ‘wear’ and ‘spare’ are exact, satisfying rhymes, but the whole poem falls apart in the last line – on the last word! The speaker of the poem says that she has her mother’s material possessions, but what she really wants is her mother’s courage.The final word pair is ‘have’ and ‘grave’. Millay ends the poem with two words that almost rhyme, but don’t. Furthermore, that final word is unstressed, so the last acoustic connection is anisobaric.
The speaker is coming apart at the end, and the reader gets that feeling through the poem’s acoustics.
There’s more to sounds in a poem than rhyming words. Assonance is the connection between two words that use the same vowel sounds. Consonance is a connection requiring the same ending consonant sound. Rhyme has both assonance and consonance, but it must also fall in equally stressed syllables. Syllables of unequal volume create anisobaric rhymes, which can sound awkward.
Cacophonous words don’t sound pleasant, while euphonious ones do, but those two terms are vague and don’t make for strong arguments on AP essays. No matter what devices are employed, poets use sounds to affect the reader.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define assonance and consonance and how they’re related to each other
- Compare stressed and unstressed syllables in regards to poetic rhymes
- Interpret the difference between cacophonous and euphonious words