Exploring the Rules of Rhyme: Operationalizing Historical Poetics

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Natalie M Houston

    University of Massachusetts - Lowell

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Rhyme is a key feature of many verse forms used throughout the history of English poetry. In its simplest forms, rhyme in English poetry can be understood as a connection between words at the end of lines of poetry, due to the similarity in the sounds of their final syllables. Rhyme suggests and enacts relationships between sound and sense in poetry: “the equivalence of the rhyme syllables or words on the phonic level implies a relation or likeness or difference on the semantic level” (Brogan et al., 2012). Internal rhyme can also connect words located elsewhere in the poetic line, although that is less common in English poetry. Rhyme connects lines of poetry through sound patterns which contribute to the tone, pace, and emotional effects of a poem. Because a common printing convention in the nineteenth century indented lines of poetry to match the rhyme scheme, rhyme was also a visual feature of printed poems, perceptible to the reader’s eye and cognition. Rhyme, along with meter, contributes to the memorable qualities of verse, and to the popularity of humorous forms like the limerick. Rhymed verse forms, such as the sonnet and ballad, were very popular in nineteenth-century British poetry, alongside unrhymed blank verse. Rhyme was used for different ideological and aesthetic purposes, as in the working-class ballads of the 1840s or Decadent revivals of French forms like the triolet and villanelle.
But the rules of rhyme are not fixed. Throughout the nineteenth century, poets and critics debated which kinds of rhymes were allowed in the best poetry. In particular, some critics argued that imperfect rhyme (also called near rhyme) was allowable because so many poets used such rhymes (such as “love” and “prove”), while others argued for a more restrictive definition of perfect rhyme. These debates about rhyme are part of larger nineteenth-century discourses about prosody, the patterning of sound in poetry. Recent work in nineteenth-century studies has focused on “historical poetics,” the examination of nineteenth-century theories of prosody and their cultural impact (Hall 2011, Martin 2012, Rudy 2009). Such scholarship complicates transhistorical definitions of lyric poetry and its formal features by demonstrating how “prosody provided a way of thinking, a method of protest, of scientific argument and investigation, of negotiating gender, class, and national structures” (Martin and Levin, 2011: 153). But too often this work in historical poetics remains focused on theory separate from poetic practice: Yopie Prins, for instance, says bluntly that “practical application is not the point of historical poetics. There are other, more interesting questions” which for her encompass the relationship of prosody to larger philosophical and scientific discourses (Prins, 2008: 233). This paper offers an alternative, computational approach to historical poetics that will not only further our understanding of nineteenth-century theories of rhyme but also of their relationship to actual poetic practice.
Rhyming dictionaries, which serve as a resource to writers seeking rhymes for their compositions, serve as an importance source for understanding the changing rules of rhyme in the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century, Edward Bysshe’s
The Art of English Poetry (1702) offered a small dictionary of rhymes, supplanted later in the century by John Walker’s
A Dictionary of the English Language, Answering at once the Purposes of Rhyming, Spelling, and Pronouncing, first published in 1775 with 41,000 words included in the rhyme dictionary. Walker’s dictionary was expanded and reprinted many times throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is mentioned in the letters and papers of many writers and poets as a standard text. But in the second half of the nineteenth century the popularity of poetry writing as a leisure activity among the growing middle class led to the publication of many new rhyme dictionaries, each of which offered different definitions of acceptable rhymes. These included J. E. Carpenter’s
A Handbook of Poetry (1868); Tom Hood’s
The Rules of Rhyme (1869), later republished as
The Rhymester; Or, the Rules of Rhyme; the American writer Samuel W. Barnum’s
A Vocabulary of English Rhymes, Arranged on a New Plan (1876); John Longmuir’s
Rhythmical Index to the English Language (1877); R. F. Brewer’s
Orthometry: A Treatise on the Art of Versification (1893); and Andrew Loring’s
The Rhymer’s Lexicon (1905).

This paper presents my current work in progress in operationalizing these nineteenth-century rhyme dictionaries as R scripts that identify rhymes in poetic texts based on the rules of a specific dictionary. The entries in these rhyme dictionaries consist of rhyme syllables that serve as the entry headings, followed by a list of homophone syllables, and then examples of words that rhyme with the entry heading. The rhyme syllables and words listed may be subdivided into categories, such as perfect rhymes and imperfect or “allowable” rhymes. Many of the dictionaries provide supporting evidence for the use of imperfect rhymes in the form of quotations from the works of British poets. For this project, all of the rhyme syllables, rhyme words, and rhyme categories are stored in csv files for each dictionary, organized by entry headings. In the interest of fidelity to the original historical dictionaries, and to facilitate comparative analysis, conflicting entries have not been normalized. Thus one dictionary might give very different rhyme syllables or words for a given entry than those listed in another; it is precisely this kind of historical variation in the rules of rhyme that this project allows us to explore. The R package data.table facilitates querying and joining data files for multiple dictionaries so as to compare their entries for the same rhyme syllable.
The technical section of the paper describes the key components of these scripts:

the last word of each line of the poem is extracted from the text and converted to reverse spelling;
a series of regular expressions are used to enact the specific instructions each rhyme dictionary provides for its users to identify the rhyme syllable to look up, such as locating the vowel that precedes the consonant(s) of the final syllable (“ame”), unless the consonant(s) are preceded by a dipthong, in which case the first of the two dipthong vowels begins the rhyme syllable (“ound”);
a hash lookup for each rhyme syllable to the selected dictionary returns the perfect rhyme syllables, perfect rhyme words, imperfect rhyme syllables (if given), and imperfect rhyme words (if given);
matches among these returned values and the other rhyme syllables and words in the poem are sought; when located, a capital letter is used to mark the rhyme pattern, as is traditional in literary criticism (ABAB, etc);
for those dictionaries that include imperfect rhymes, the ratio of perfect to imperfect rhymes in the poem is also recorded.

This project expands our understanding of nineteenth-century rhyme theory and practice in three ways: by enabling the identification of rhyme patterns in large sets of texts, we can expand our understanding of historical verse writing practices beyond canonical literary texts; by operationalizing the rules instantiated in different dictionaries, we can compare how they would have evaluated the rhymes chosen by particular poets; and by creating a database of the words included in these dictionaries, we can examine the consistency and variation of the recommended rhymes.
The final section of the paper presents a case study in the application of these scripts to literary texts, an analysis of the rhyme patterns used in the 1274 poems included in Edmund Clarence Stedman’s
A Victorian Anthology 1837-1895 (1895), as a sample dataset of poetry produced during the time when these rhyme dictionaries were circulating and when these rhyme theories were debated. Examining the frequency of different rhyme patterns and the vocabulary of rhyme common in Victorian poetry opens up new paths for analyzing rhyme practice, rhyme theory, and the lexical fields generated by the use of rhyme. This project thus contributes to current work in nineteenth-century studies and historical poetics by computationally analyzing the theory offered by rhyme dictionaries with the actual practices of nineteenth-century poetry.


Brogan, T.V.F., et al. (2012). Rhyme. In Cushman, S. and Cavanagh, C. (eds),
Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 1182-92.

Hall, J. (ed). (2011).
Meter Matters: Verse Cultures of the Long Nineteenth Century. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Martin, M. (2012).
The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Martin, M. and Levin, Y. (2011). Victorian Prosody: Measuring the Field.
Victorian Poetry,
49(2): 149-60.

Prins, Y. (2008). Historical Poetics, Dysprosody, and ‘The Science of English Verse’.
123(1): 229-34.

Rudy, J. (2009).
Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics. Athens: Ohio University Press.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2016
"Digital Identities: the Past and the Future"

Hosted at Jagiellonian University, Pedagogical University of Krakow

Kraków, Poland

July 11, 2016 - July 16, 2016

454 works by 1072 authors indexed

Conference website: https://dh2016.adho.org/

Series: ADHO (11)

Organizers: ADHO