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Rhyme and Its Impact

Anglo-American verse––the kind, anyway, that aspires to high art––has lamentably turned its back on rhyme in the last century, but rhyme continues to flourish in popular song genres, latterly most notably in hip-hop, which would be nothing without its couplets (its musical content being nil). But poets working in the more conservative traditions of European verse––like Russian––continue to adhere to the norm of rhymed poetry.

One salient impact of rhyme that often goes unnoticed but contributes to the poetic content is the interpenetration of rhyme-fellows, which is to say that words or phrases in rhyme position influence each other’s meaning. As an ensemble they form a semantic amalgam, the first rhyme-fellow in particular affecting the meaning of the second. This effect is particularly noticeable in doggerel, satire, and other forms of humorous verse.

Take, for instance, the fifth stanza of the famous burlesque, “Son Popova” (‘Popov’s Dream’), by A. K. Tolstoy (cousin of Leo), in which a minor civil servant dreams that he has arrived at his superior’s (a minister’s) name day celebration sans his pants:

Вошел министр. Он видный был мужчина,
Изящных форм, с приветливым лицом,
Одет в визитку: своего, мол, чина
Не ставлю я пред публикой ребром.
Внушается гражданством дисциплина,
А не мундиром, шитым серебром,
Всё зло у нас от глупых форм избытка,
Я ж века сын –– так вот на мне визитка!

[Rough translation:

The minister entered. He was an imposing man
Of elegant forms, with a friendly face.
He was dressed in a morning coat: as if to say, my rank
I’m not overpowering the public with [‘not placing rib-like before’].
Discipline is impressed by civic duty
And not by a uniform embroidered with silver.
All our evils stem from the surfeit of stupid forms,
But I’m a son of the age––so that’s why I’ve got a morning coat on!]

The rhyme pattern throughout this poem is abababcc. In this particular stanza the a position is filled by the words muzhchina ‘man’, china ‘rank [gen.]’, and distsiplina ‘discipline’; the b position by three substantives in the instrumental case: litsom ‘face’, rebrom ‘rib’, and serebrom ‘silver’. The series ‘man’, ‘rank’, and ‘discipline’ forms a semantic amalgam in that the latter two items qualify the first, and the third qualifies the second. Moreover, the qualification is reciprocal, strengthening the cumulative purport of the rhyme-fellows as a group. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the series ‘face’, ‘rib’, and ‘silver’.

In a lesser vein but applicable all the same, here is a piece of doggerel confected in German by Constantine Shapiro (a poet with a lyric palette that included friendly caricatures; see his Selected Writings, 2nd ed., 2008) about a fellow musician, a Viennese refugee violinist, Josef Schlesinger, in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, who was known for being ill-tempered but who softened up after receiving an invitation to visit his sister in Australia:

Saison beendet das Orchester,
Und Josef eilt schon zu der Schwester.
Mit Auslandspass und neuem Hut,
Kennt er nur Liebe, keine Wut.

The orchestra finished its season,
And Josef is hurrying to his sister.
With a passport and a new hat
He knows only love, no rage.

[variant]

Mit neuem Hut und Auslandspass,
Kennt er nur Liebe, keinen Hass.

With a new hat and a passport
He knows only love, no hate.

What is jocose about the rhymes Hut ‘hat’/Wut ‘rage’ and Auslandspass ‘passport’/Hass ‘hate’ is the juxtaposition of utterly prosaic concrete nouns with emotionally charged abstract ones. Thus doth rhyme work its charm in e’en the most humble of poetic precincts.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

[Addendum: What triggered this post was the following. I was sitting in a New York subway going downtown when I noticed that the woman sitting opposite me had a shopping bag on her lap festooned with sayings and slogans, one of which was “Friendship Is More Important Than Money.” I immediately thought of the corresponding Russian proverb, “Не имей сто рублей, но имей сто друзей,” which means “Don’t have a hundred rubles but have a hundred friends,” and where the words rubles and friends rhyme. What apothegmatic force in the Russian proverb, with its meter and rhyme, compared to its utterly flat English equivalent!]

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