Rhyme Scheme

Definition

Rhyme scheme, along with meter, is one of the main features of traditional verse poetry. Rhyme schemes are often determined by the form of the poem – for example, sonnets have a very specific rhyme scheme, while cinquains have another. Rhymes work best when the poem has a rhythmic quality, so rhyme schemes are most common in traditional verse (which has a steady rhythm, or meter).

Rhyme scheme says nothing about internal rhymes, or rhymes that occur within the lines. For example, Eminem’s lyrics are full of internal rhymes (or near-rhymes):

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.

There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti.

The rhyme scheme of these lines is a simple AA (allowing for the near-rhyme between “heavy” and “spaghetti”), but there are many other words that fit the same rhyme inside the line. These internal rhymes are not considered part of the song’s rhyme scheme.

 

Types of Meter

There are a potentially infinite number of rhyme schemes, and all of them are described using a sequence of letters such as ABAC or AABBCC. Each letter corresponds to a single line, and lines sharing the same letter are the ones that rhyme. So, ABCDEF would be a six-line poem that doesn’t rhyme at all, whereas AAAA would be a four-line poem in which all the lines rhyme.

FormExample
AA BB … (these are called “couplets”)A: We took a walk

A: And had a talk.

B: The talk we had,

B: It made me sad.

 

ABCB (this one is very common in popular music)A: Roses are red,

B: Violets are blue.

C: This poem is awesome,

B: And so are you.

 

AABBA (Limericks are a good example of this rhyme scheme)A: A painter, who lived in Great Britain,

A: Interrupted two girls with their knittin’

B: He said, with a sigh,

B: “That park bench–well I

A: Just painted it, right where you’re sittin’!”

 

 

Examples and Explanation

Example #1

In fourteen-hundred ninety-two,

Columbus sailed the ocean blue

Couplets are very memorable, which explains why they’re so common in children’s rhymes and school mnemonics, like this one. When the information is put in the form of rhyming couplets, it becomes very easy to retain.

Example #2

Mary had a little lamb

Its fleece was white as snow.

Everywhere that Mary went

The lamb was sure to go.

This is an example of the ABCB rhyme scheme that is so common in popular music.

Example #3

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

These lines from “The Star-Spangled Banner” have a rhyme scheme of AA, along with an internal rhyme (“glare”) in the first line.

 

The Importance of Rhyme Schemes

No one is entirely sure what the “purpose” of rhyming is, but it may have originated in the days before the invention of writing, when storytellers had to find ways to memorize incredibly long myths and epic poems. It would have been easier for them to remember and transmit these stories if they rhymed. On the other hand, rhymes might simply have become popular because human beings like the way they sound!

Rhymes were an important part of traditional poetry, but modern poetry is usually written in free verse, meaning it does not necessarily rhyme. In fact, modern poetry teachers often discourage their students from using rhyme schemes, since they see rhyming as a pointless distraction. Nonetheless, understanding rhyme schemes is essential if you want to understand more traditional poetry. In addition, while rhyme schemes are no longer common in poetry, they are still extremely common in popular music.

 

How to use Rhyme Schemes

It can be hard to stick to a rhyme scheme once you’ve decided on one. However, the challenge of working within this strict structure can also be very enjoyable, and can really spark your creativity. In any rhyme scheme, you want to work around your strongest lines. If you have a line that you think is really powerful, stick with it! You can craft other rhyming lines around it. You can think of this as a kind of “anchor line.”

Once you have your anchor line, pick a rhyming word and build the next line around it. Make sure, though, that you’re not just going with the first rhyme that pops into your head. Grab a rhyming dictionary (there are plenty online) and search for inspiration. Let your imagination wander over the various possible rhymes, and think about what lines you might craft around those different words. Gradually, the discipline of working within a rhyme scheme will help give shape and direction to your literary ideas.

 

When to use Rhyme Schemes

Rhyme schemes are important in traditional poetry, but not in modern poetry. However, they remain very important in music: nearly all popular music has a strict rhyme scheme, usually something like AABB or ABCB. So if you’re writing lyrics to a song, those rhyme schemes will be very useful for you.

Outside of music composition, it’s best to remember that rhymes are now considered to bring a playful or even childish tone to your writing. Modern readers are accustomed to encountering much more free verse, so non-rhyming poetry tends to sound more sophisticated, while rhyming poetry sounds more juvenile and amateurish. This is fine if you’re writing for kids (many children’s books have rhymes), or trying to be funny, or if your assignment specifically says you need to have a rhyme scheme. Otherwise, though, it’s probably best to avoid rhyme schemes.

 

Similar Concepts (with examples)

Meter

Along with rhyme scheme, meter was the defining characteristic of traditional poetry. Meter describes the rhythm of a line in terms of a specific pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. However, rhyme scheme and meter are completely independent – you can even have an established rhyme scheme without any meter at all! (Though it might sound kind of odd.)

 

Examples in Literature

Example #1

“If we shadows have offended,

Think but this and all is mended:

That you have but slumbered here,

While these visions did appear.” (William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Shakespeare actually didn’t use rhyme much in his plays (though he did in his sonnets and other poems). This, however, is a noteworthy exception: the character Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream speaks in rhymes when he is directly addressing the audience. This may contribute to Shakespeare’s portrayal of Puck as childlike, playful, and mischievous.

Example #2

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

 

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,

Who chariotest to their dark wintery bed.

(Percy Shelley, Ode to the West Wind)

This section has a complicated rhyme scheme known as the terza rima, in which the middle line of each stanza matches the first and third lines of the following stanza: ABA-BCB-CDC-DED… This is a challenging rhyme scheme to work with, especially in a language like English that has so few rhyming words!

 

Examples in Popular Culture

Example #1

This one is machine and nerve, and has its mind concluded.

This one is but flesh and faith, and is the more deluded. (Flood Intelligence Gravemind, Halo)

In the video game Halo, the Flood Intelligence Gravemind uses a short poem to express its preference for machines over human soldiers. The poem is a single couplet, with a rhyme scheme of AA.

Example #2

Lucky there’s a family guy!

Lucky there’s a man who

Positively can do

All the things that make us

Laugh and cry!

The theme song from Family Guy has a slightly odd rhyme scheme of ABBCA.

Example #3

Let’s stick to understanding and we won’t fall

For better or worse times, I hope to me you call

So I pray every day more than anything

Friends will stay as we begin to lay

This foundation for a family – love ain’t simple.

(Common, Light)

The lyrics to Common’s Light switch back and forth from a simple couplet form (AABB) into a much more freeform style (ABCD) whose lines do not rhyme. However, even in the freeform portions of the song there are still internal rhymes to be found, such as between “stay” and “lay.”

 

Quiz

  1. What is the rhyme scheme of “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”?
    1. AABB
    2. ABAB
    3. ABCB
    4. AABA
  1. Modern poetry is usually written in
    1. Avant-garde rhyme schemes
    2. Couplets
    3. Free verse
    4. All of the above
  1. The original purpose of rhyming may have been…
    1. To fit the classical rhyme schemes of ancient societies
    2. To make long epic poems and myths more memorable
    3. A religious belief that rhymes were sacred and would please the gods
    4. Any of the above
  1. Rhyme schemes do not give information about…
    1. Meter
    2. Internal rhymes
    3. The poem’s context
    4. Any of the above

ANSWER KEY:

  1. A
  2. C
  3. B
  4. D
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