Maybe it’s just me but I can’t bring myself to like much rhyming poetry.
The great stuff, fine. Who’s going to complain about Keat’s Ode to Autumn or Emily Dickinson’s There’s A Certain Slant of Light?
the landscape listens, Dickinson writes
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.
I can go along with breath and death here because overall the poem works like a dream. Everybody with half a brain knows that wintry slant of light. And the heft of cathedral tunes is great.
Keats, for his part, nails autumn like no-one else has since. Autumn poetry is effectively over and has been since Keats wrote Ode to Autumn in the same way that mafia films are effectively over since The Godfather. Yes, people will go on writing autumn poetry and making mafia films but there’s not a lot of point because they’ll always be second best. (Sorry, Casino and Goodfellas fans.)
But even with the great poetry, don’t you sometimes get a sneaky feeling that the rhymes are, well, slightly embarrassing? I love Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale. It’s undoubtedly beautiful.And I’m sure that, even as a long ago Eng. lit; grad., I shouldn’t prise a rhyme out of a poem and have a close look at it in isolation. And yet, the deep-delved earth and the sunburnt mirth bother me a bit. Earth and mirth? I can’t help feeling they’re about as embarrassing as Janet and planet or chuckle and buckle. I can’t explain why.
PG Wodehouse in his great comic novels, the Jeeves and Wooster books, often has his wonderful character Bertie Wooster reflect on the fact that he can’t recall song lyrics or poems. In the book Jeeves Takes Charge, Bertie, never one for books unless they’re simple murder mysteries, mentions that he’s forgotten a poem part of which he says goes something like this:
” Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tumty-tum,
I slew him, tum-tum tum!”
Everyone knows that experience – you remember the exact rhythym but hardly a single word. What you often know though is that tum, whatever word it represents, is going to rhyme with tum. And something about that little gallop along a line ending in book or took and the little gallop along the next line, ending in cook or look somehow bothers me.
Much great poetry doesn’t rhyme of course. But much does. And even Chaucer, who had more poetry in his pipe (if he smoked) than I’ll ever have in my entire life, did come up with a few rather naff rhymes. Troilus and Criseyde for example, rattles along at Bertie’s tumty pace and every stanza’s stuffed with rhymes. I love the work – all that swooning and fainting and high camp histrionic courtly love is very enjoyable. But I could do without some of the rhymes.
Farewel, dere herte swete
Ther God us graunte sownde and soone to mete!
(Farewell dear sweetheart, May God grant that we soon meet, safe and sound.)
It’s a nice sentiment and they’re madly in love and so on but, sweet and meet… Then there’s other and brother and cast and fast and mean and clean and a hundred others that sort of trip you up as you go along. ‘Come on Chaucer’ you say with your hands over your eyes, ‘don’t give us bliss and kiss’. But of course it’s a tragic love story, so he does.
It’s probably mainly that, to the contemporary ear, rhymes can easily sound naive. This is the kind of stuff I mean (I’m making this one up as an example.)
I walked along a country lane
And stopped when it began to rain.
The water soaked me to the skin
I ran back home and had a gin.
The sun came out
The day was fine.
I had a
Whopping glass of wine.