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Yale University Press
Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse, Fourth Edition / Edition 4

Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse, Fourth Edition / Edition 4


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In this classic text, the distinguished poet and critic John Hollander surveys the schemes, patterns, and forms of English verse, illustrating each variation with an original and witty self-descriptive example. In new essays for this revised edition, J. D. McClatchy and Richard Wilbur each offer a personal take on why Rhymes’s Reason has played an integral role in the education of young poets and student scholars.
“[Hollander] put everything he knew about the structures of poetry—those fabled magic tricks—into a sort of guidebook for those starting out on the trail up Mount Parnassus. . . . There are astonishments on every page.”—from the Foreword by J. D. McClatchy
“This book’s wit and inventive spirit, its self-describing embodiments of form, now offer the beginning poet a happy chance to discover the technician in himself.”—from the Afterword by Richard Wilbur
“How lucky the young poet who discovers this wisest and most lighthearted of manuals.”—James Merrill
“What the E. B. White–William Strunk The Elements of Style is to the writing of prose, Rhyme’s Reason could very easily become to the writing of verse. . . . Marvelously comprehensive, clarifying and useful, [and] a delight to read.”—John Reardon, Los Angeles Times Review of Books
“A virtuoso performance and a mandatory text for poetry readers and practitioners alike.”—ALA Booklist

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300206296
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/30/2014
Edition description: 4
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 309,954
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

A preeminent American poet, John Hollander (1929–2013) wrote over sixteen volumes of poetry and was Sterling Professor of English at Yale University. J. D. McClatchy is a poet and literary critic. He teaches at Yale University, where he also edits The Yale Review.Richard Wilbur was appointed the second United States Poet Laureate in 1987 and twice received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, in 1957 and in 1989.

Read an Excerpt

Rhyme's Reason

A Guide to English Verse

By John Hollander


Copyright © 2014 J. D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-20629-6


This is a guide to verse, to the formal structures which are a necessary condition of poetry, but not a sufficient one. The building blocks of poetry itself are elements of fiction—fable, "image," metaphor—all the material of the nonliteral. The components of verse are like parts of plans by which the materials are built into a structure. The study of rhetoric distinguishes between tropes, or figures of meaning such as metaphor and metonymy, and schemes, or surface patterns of words. Poetry is a matter of trope; and verse, of scheme or design. But the blueprints of verse can be used to build things made of literal, or nonpoetic material—a shopping list or roadside sign can be rhymed—which is why most verse is not poetry.

It is nonetheless common and convenient for most people who don't read carefully to use "poetry" to mean "writing in some kind of verse," and to regard thereby the design without considering the materials.

The most popular verse form in America today—the ubiquitous jingle readers identify with "poetry" even as, fifty or sixty years ago, they did anything that rhymed—is

a kind of free verse
without any special
constraints on it except
those imposed by
the notion—also
generally accepted—that
the strip the lines
make as they run
down the page (the
familiar strip with the
right-hand edge) not
be too wide

This is as automatic and unpoetic in its arbitrary formality as jingling rhymes on "June" and "moon" ever were; schemes and structures of free verse are as conventional and, for most writers, as "academic" as certain other "official" forms have been in other eras. Major poetry has been built in this form, even as Tennyson could employ the same rhyming schemes as writers of occasional verses for family parties.

Both verse and prose, then, are schematic domains. Literacy used to entail some ability to write in both modes, without any presumption of poetry in the execution of skill in the former. But today sportswriters on the few newspapers we have left know no Latin nor can write good witty verses. We no longer memorize poems at school. Young persons are protected from the prose cadences—so influential on writing in both modes—of the King James Bible by aggressive separatism and the churches themselves; all of us are shielded from Shakespearean rhythm by the ways in which both prose and verse are publicly intoned in America. The territory covered in this guide—this road map through the region of poetry in English—has itself tended to run back into second-growth timber, if not into wilderness.

Some day we will all be reading Blue Guides and Baedekers to what once were our own, familiar public places. In former times, the region of verse was like an inviting, safe municipal park, in which one could play and wander at will. Today, only a narrow border of that park is frequently used (and vandalized), out of fear that there is safety only in that crowded strip—even as the users' grandparents would cling to walks that went by statues—and out of ignorance of landscape. The beauties of the rest of that park are there, unexplored save by some scholars and often abandoned even by them.

I am old enough to have grown up in the park, and to map a region one loves is a way of caressing it. (Goethe wrote of counting out hexameters on his Roman lady's back as she lay in his arms: he was mapping her body's' curve even as he felt for the ancient rhythm.) I too set out now as a loving rather than merely dutiful tour guide. Even today, when touch seems casual and only discourse intimate, one can't presume on Whitmanic relations with readers. I shall content myself (Inquiry's too severe in prose; / Verse puts its questions in repose) with tapping out my self-explaining diagrams and illustrations of the walks and alleys and bosks and ponds and parterres and follies and hahas and so forth that comprise my territory, as it were, on the reader's hand. After all, this is a manual.

The schemes and designs to be explored here include: the structures of lines of verse; patterns of rhyme, alliteration, and assonance; schemes of syntax and word order; groups of lines called strophes or stanzas; overall patterns of repetition and variation (refrains, etc.); and larger arrangements of these. Over the centuries, these forms have come at various times to be associated with one or another kind of poetic use—or with what some critics would call a "theme," a "subject" or an occasion. Sonnets, for example, start out by being about a particular philosophic conception of love, and end up in the twentieth century as descriptions of pictures, explanations of myths, or analytic meditations. And yet the later poems in the history of the form's life—when written by the finest poets—are always in some way aware of, and always engage, that history and the burden it puts on originality.

This little book contains examples of formal schemes of various sorts, and at various levels of organization. Since we are concerned only with verse in English, no historical sketch or comparative analysis of metrics and forms is given, save for a glance at what the meters of classical poetry have entailed for English. But it should be remembered that all poetry was originally oral. It was sung or chanted; poetic scheme and musical pattern coincided, or were sometimes identical. Poetic form as we know it is an abstraction from, or residue of, musical form, from which it came to be divorced when writing replaced memory as a way of preserving poetic utterance in narrative, prayer, spell, and the like. The ghost of oral poetry never vanishes, even though the conventions and patterns of writing reach out across time and silence all actual voices. This is why, to go back to the earlier analogy of architecture, a poet is always like both the builder of houses, with plans "at hand," and the designer or executor of a complicated edifice, drawing and working from complex blueprints.

Verse can be organized according to very many metrical systems, depending upon the structure of the language in which the verse is written. The systems relevant to verse in English are:

1. Pure accentual—the meter of the earliest Germanic poetry; it is preserved in nursery rhymes and in much lyric verse.

2. Accentual-syllabic—the verse system which involves such patterns as "iambic," "dactylic," etc., all somewhat confusingly named for Greek meters in a totally different system.

3. Pure syllabic—the basic system of modern French and Japanese, to cite two kinds of poetry that have used it for centuries; it has been used in English only in the last fifty years or so.

4. So-called free verse, of which there are many varieties, developed mostly in the twentieth century.

5. Quantitative verse which, save for some grotesque and failed examples, cannot occur in English, but which was the basis of Greek prosody and, later on, of Latin.

Since accentual-syllabism has been so dominant, and so important, during the course of the poetic history of the English language, we will start with it.

Accentual-syllabic verse is built up of pairs or triads of syllables, alternating or otherwise grouping stressed and unstressed ones. Syllables usually keep their word accent, or the accent they would have in phrases in normal speech. Iambic pentameter, a line pattern made up of five syllable pairs with the first syllable unstressed, can be illustrated by a line which most perfectly conforms to the pattern itself:

Aboút aboút aboút aboút aboút

or this:

A boát, a boát, a boát, a boát, a boát

(for a monosyllable, with its preceding article, is accented like a word of two syllables). But actual lines of iambic pentameter, because they can't simply repeat identical pairs of syllables, have individual and particular rhythms which depart from the metrical pattern slightly. It is in this variation that the sound of poetry lives. For example, a simple variation of our first example—one that has become a standard pattern in itself—is actually a reversal of stressed and unstressed syllables in the first pair:

Almost "about about about about"

or in the second as well:

Nearly almost "about about about"

But there are ways of departing that seem to obscure the pattern so that they can no longer be considered variations from it:

Almost the sound of the line of "about"s

What we hear is a rhythm of four beats, not five, and the unstressed syllables are grouped into triads of dum de de, dum de de (called dactyls), even though there are, in fact, ten syllables in the lines.

Most interesting with regard to poetry are the variations—and almost every line of poetry exhibits them—that lie between these extremes. Any poem will be cast in one metrical form or another, and after we read three or more lines it will be obvious which of two patterns even the most ambiguous line is a variation of. Frequently, richness and significance of sound depend upon our ear hesitating for a while between patterns; but there is real ambiguity only at the start of a poem. An extreme case is the opening of one of Keats's sonnets:

How many bards gild the lapses of time

We might think that a matching line would be:

Read this as dactyls and then it will rhyme

like the one we made up before. But in fact, the sonnet continues in iambic pentameter, and we realize that we had a wildly variant first line instead of a more patterned one. But a better example, also by Keats, can be seen in the second line of his "Ode on a Grecian Urn":

Thou fóster-chíld of sílence and slów tíme

Here, although only the fourth pair has its order reversed, the line nevertheless resounds with other possibilities. Thus,

Thou foster-child of sílence and slow tíme
Accéntually poúnding to só míme
An antiquated rhythm which had nó rhyme.

But the phrase "slow time" resolves itself in the poem because "time" rhymes there only with the monosyllable "rhyme" two lines below (there's no "slow"/ "so" chiming, as in our example). When we scan a line of poetry, or mark the prominent syllables, we are really showing what its actual rhythm is, and then, by putting this rhythm in alignment with adjacent ones in the poem or stanza of the poem, deciding what their common pattern is. Thus, every line is at once unique and has family resemblances, usually very strong, to its companions in any one poem.

Accentual-syllabic verse is traditionally discussed as sequences of feet; and although the terminology is misleading, you can remember that:

A foót | is júst | a groúp | of syl- | lablés:
Tróchees | (like these), | iámbs, | spóndees, | páired, while
Dactyls and | anapests | álways are | triads of | syllables.

An iamb is a pair with a stress on the second syllable (as in "about"):

Iambic méter rúns along like thís:
Pentameters will have five syllables
More strongly stressed than other ones nearby—
Ten syllables all told, perhaps eleven.


Tróchees simply tumble on and
Start with downbeats just like this one
(Sorry, "iamb" is trochaic).


"Dactyl" means | "fínger" in | Gréek, and a | fóot that was
| máde up of | one long
Syllable followed by two, like the joints in a finger was used
Lines made of six, just like these, in the epics of Homer and
Save that in English we substitute downbeats and upbeats
for long-short.


In an an | apest up | beats start oút | in revérse
Of the dactyl's persuasion but end up no worse.
(Yes, the anapest's name is dactylic—a curse?)


Slów spóndees are two héavy stressed downbeats
They stand shoulder to strong shoulder this way.

We can even observe the echoes of such accentual "feet" in natural speech:

Só names such as "Jóhn Smíth" seém spóndees.
(Names of pláces, such as "Maín Street"?
Thése are mérely goód old tróchees.)

It will be clear by now that different kinds of accentual-syllabic line will "interpret" a stress-pattern of natural speech in different ways. Disyllabic words are stressed either one way or another, and pairs of words that differ by virtue of stress alone will have to play different metrical roles:

These lines can shów you whére the accent wént,
Bút with their cóntent I'm not yét content.

And trisyllables, for example, can submit to two readings. We would say that "typewriter" is normally dactyllic-sounding, and placing it in a dactyllic line elicits this character.

Lísten, my typewriter clátters in dáctyls along with my prose!

But "typewriter" is a compound word, once hyphenated ("type-writer") before constant use in speech had silenced the second stress; that ghost of accent can be summoned up:

My typewríter in verse divides its time
Between iamb and trochee. (Now I'll rhyme.)

Clearly, a little phrase like "open it" will work like a dactyllic single word, just as "of the best" will work like an anapestic one. It will be apparent, also, that accentual-syllabic verse can make much of the variations of stress that occur when we are logically contrasting two words or phrases which differ by reason of their unstressed syllable. "A book" is an iamb; so is "the book"; but what we write as "the book" (and pronounce as something like "thee book") promotes the unstressed syllable, in emphatic contrast, to something having more of the power of "this book" or "that book." Thus we might, iambically,

Observe the whóre outside the stóre.

But if we mean to single out the allegorical figure of Revelation 17 then she may become trochaic, when

Babylón we meán here—the whore
(Not some hooker by the seashore).

When the older terminology of "foot" for "syllable pair" or "triad" is used, line length is described in terms of number of feet, as for example dimeter, trimeter:

If shé should wríte
Some verse tonight
This dimeter
Would limit her.


Iambic trimetér
Is rather easier.


Tetrámetér allows more spáce
For thoughts to seat themselves with grace.


Hére is pentámetér, the line of five
That English poetry still keeps alive;
In other centuries it was official.
Now, different kinds of verse make it seem special.


Six downbeats in a line that has twelve syllables
Make up the alexandrine, which, as you can hear,
Tends to fall into halves—one question, one reply.

The break that you heard in the last line is called caesura. Here it is at work in rhymed pairs of lines called couplets:

In couplets, one line often makes a point
Which hinges on its bending, like a joint;
The sentence makes that line break into two.
Here's a caesura: see what it can do.
(And here's a gentler one, whose pause, more slight,
Waves its two hands, and makes what's left sound right.)

Two even longer measured lines:

Fourteeners, cut from ballad stanzas, don't seem right for song: Their measure rumbles on like this for just a bit too long.

and, used by early Elizabethans,

A poulter's measure (like a baker's dozen) cut
One foot off a fourteener couplet, ended in a rut.

Let us now consider groupings of lines, by rhyme or other means, remembering first that

A line can be end-stopped, just like this one,
Or it can show enjambment, just like this
One, where the sense straddles two lines: you feel
As if from shore you'd stepped into a boat;

and remembering secondly that there is a unique case, outside of line-groups. The one-line poem (in Greek, a monostich) is almost always really a couplet, an epigram formed by the title and the line itself, as in

A ONE-LINE POEM The universe

First, then, blank verse:

Iambic five-beat lines are labeled blank
(with sometimes a foot or two reversed,
Or one more syllable—"feminine ending").
Blank verse can be extremely flexible:
It ticks and tocks the time with even feet
(Or sometimes, cleverly, can end limping).
Shakespeare and others of his day explored
Blank verse in stage plays, both in regular
And rather uneven and more rough-hewn forms.
Occasionally, rhyming couplets sound
Out at scenes' endings, gongs to end the round.
Milton did other things: he made it more
Heroic than dramatic: although blind
He turned its structure into something half
Heard, half seen, as when a chiasm
(Words, phrases, sounds or parts of speech arranged
In mirroring) occurs in Paradise
(he often enjambs this way) we see
Half a line that, reflecting its line-half,
Cannot sit still to be regarded like
A well-made picture or inscription, but
Rushes ahead as sentences do, not like
Visual melody in a well-shaped line.
But back again to what blank verse can do:
In time of old, inversions it contained
Of syntax, and Wordsworth and Tennyson
More delicately such arrangements made.
But Browning and more lately Robert Frost
Made their blank verse seem natural again,
The kind of sound our sentences would make
If only we could leave them to themselves—
The road our way of talking always takes,
Not, like a foul line or state boundary,
An artificially drawn line at all.


The old fourteener William Blake found to his liking more
Than old "heroic" verse, pentameters, which must have
Far too official for him; so, like Milton with his ten
Syllables, Blake pushed ahead with the seven stresses he
heard beneath
The even fourteeners sanctified for him by balladry
(For two rhyming fourteeners can / be written out, you see,
In just a single ballad stan- / za, rhymed abab)
And common hymnody, and Chapman's Iliad, and all
Popular rhyming forms eschewed by Alexander Pope.
Blake, in Jerusalem and Milton, twisted the seven-beat line
With terrible vatic force, & claimed that he wrote in three
different keys,
"Terrific," "Mild & gentle," and "Prosaic"; yet it remains
Hard to distinguish their tones, as it were, from rhythmic
patterns alone.


Excerpted from Rhyme's Reason by John Hollander. Copyright © 2014 J. D.. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword to the Fourth Edition, by J. D. McClatchy, ix,
Preface to the Third Edition, xix,
Introduction, 1,
Schemes, 3,
Verse Systems, 4,
Accentual-Syllabic Verse, 5,
Versification, 11,
Accentual Meters, 21,
Pure Syllabic Verse, 23,
Free Verse, 26,
Aberrant Forms, 30,
Ode Forms, 33,
Quantitative Verse, 34,
Classical Meters and Their Adaptations, 35,
Repetitive Structures, 37,
Comical Schemes, 46,
Rhetorical Schemes, 48,
Variation and Mimesis, 50,
More on Rhyming, 54,
Uncommon Schemes, 60,
Appendix, 71,
Patterns in Practice, 87,
Afterword to the Fourth Edition, by Richard Wilbur, 137,
Suggestions for Further Reading, 139,
Index, 141,

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