Essays and Comment: Anthony Madrid

A Gallery of Rhymes from Palgraves Golden Treasury, Book I

 

 

1

Spring, the sweet Spring, is the year’s pleasant king;
Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring,
Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing,
Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!

 

 

This is the first stanza of a short poem by Thomas Nash. I have “bolded” the rhyme words, as I shall be doing throughout these notes.

The poem first appeared in Summers Last Will and Testament (1592), a play that no one has read in hundreds of years. The poem occurs near the beginning of the play. It is a song.

There is another poem from Summers Last Will that is more famous nowadays, I mean the one with the refrain “I am sick, I must die. / Lord have mercy on us.” Naturally, it occurs at the end of the play.

“I am sick, I must die” did not make it into Palgraves Golden Treasury. “Spring, the sweet spring” did. Nothing else by Nash is in there. However, it was used as the first poem on page 1. “Book First,” first poem: “Spring, the sweet spring.”

It was a bold choice. It only has one good line in it. However, that line is repeated three times in thirteen lines: “Cuckoo, jug-jug,” etc. Palgrave and the other people on his secret committee (which included Tennyson), had no doubts about this piece.

Forget the good line. Look at the rhymes. At least two things worth commenting on. Number one, the fact that you get not a rhyme pair but a rhyme hexagon. That’s not common. Number two, it’s not an equilateral hexagon. What do I mean by that.

I mean the status of the words sting and ring is quite inferior to that of spring, king, thing, and sing. Look in any concordance to any lyrical poet’s works. You’ll find the words sting and ring are not used as rhymes with anywhere near the frequency that the other four are.

Your concordance will also show that the rhyme pair {spring|sing} beats any other combination of those six words, probably by a factor of ten-to-one. The reason is obvious, we needn’t get into it.

The crazy thing is: If you rank the words by frequency, you’ll find the “pecking order” is more or less the same among poets born in the same generation. This is because lyric poets are a bunch of brainless babblers, just as we ourselves are. They want more than anything else for their song or poem to sound like a song or a poem, and so they are forced by powers larger than themselves to say things like “Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king.” It can’t be helped.

But I’m about to say something very important. There was nothing wrong in 1592, and there is nothing wrong in 2017, with using the same rhyme pairs over and over and over. You can call {sing|spring} a “rhyme cliché” if you want, but that attitude leads to flushing six sevenths of world literature down the toilet.

More on this hereafter.

 

2

The fields with flowers are deck’d in every hue,
The clouds with orient gold spangle their blue;

 

William Drummond of Hawthornden, two lines from a piece simply called “Song” in the original. Palgrave retitled it “SUMMONS TO LOVE,” and placed it as the second poem in the original edition (1861) of the Golden Treasury.

The greatest version of Palgrave, by the way, is the Penguin Classics paperback, from 1991, edited by Christopher Ricks. That’s the only version I’ve ever seen that allows you to track changes that Palgrave instituted over the years. For instance, “SUMMONS TO LOVE” is the second poem in the Treasury in 1861, but in the 1883 edition, Palgrave interposed a couple Shakespeare songs between Nash and Drummond, leaving “SUMMONS TO LOVE” bumped back to fourth position. As if “Book First” weren’t already sufficiently Shakespeare-happy.

But Palgrave was probably the last anthology editor to give Drummond the kind of treatment he deserves. In the 1861 Treasury, Drummond gets seven poems out of fifty-two total in Book First. That’s seven times as many poems as the vast majority of the poets get.

Meanwhile, the significance of {hue|blue} is that it happens to be a no-no rhyme for Augustan poets. It was never strikingly common in any period, but it becomes virtually nonexistent from around 1660 to 1800. Not that anyone was consciously avoiding it. They were unconsciously avoiding it.

Why. Because the meanings of the two words have a genus-and-species type relationship. Blue is a kind of hue (as the word hue was understood in Drummond’s time). There are actually a surprising number of rhyme pairs like that: {berry|cherry}, {fowl|owl}, {bell|knell}, and so on. All of these rhyme pairs are used freely in the Elizabethan period, and also in the Romantic. But the Augustans wouldn’t touch ’em. Or rarely.

Why not. Because—and I’m about to say something important again—the Augustans believed in their hearts that the beauty of the rhyme effect was bound up with its being illogical, or meta-logical, or biological—anything but logical. Anything but logical. If the two words in a rhyme pair bore to each other some essential and inescapable semantic link, then that rhyme pair would seem like a wasted opportunity to the Augustan poet. He or she intuited that the point of rhyme entailed bringing things together that don’t belong together—by magic, as it were. The magic of sound. Therefore: {moan|bone}—awesome; {moan|groan}—not so good.

 

3

 

Weep you no more, sad fountains:—

       What need you flow so fast?

Look how the snowy mountains

       Heaven’s sun doth gently waste!

 

First four lines of “A SONG FOR MUSIC,” another of the poems that Palgrave added in 1883. Credited to “Anon.” by both Palgrave and Ricks. The piece was indeed set to music by John Dowland in his Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires (1603). There, the poem had no title. Also, that book wasn’t Dowland’s last book of songs.

We have all encountered persons who triumphantly cite the fact that nothing rhymes with orange. It is always orange they point to. Never scissors, never morgue, never geode. Never any of the other thousands of words that have no rhyme partner. Because: the orangists have given the matter no thought. They are quoting. As they always are.

The more interesting phenomenon from the researcher’s point of view is the case of rhyme pairs like {fountain|mountain}, where each of the words has a rhyme, but only one. Where either mountain or fountain appears in rhyme position, the other is literally inevitable. Likewise with {only|lonely}. Likewise with {culture|vulture}. And others.

There is no essential and inescapable semantic link between the words in those rhyme pairs. Yet, there is, to be sure, an inescapable link. Was that link sufficiently palpable to wipe out {fountains|mountains} during the long eighteenth century? It was. Check the concordances. That pair is decommissioned for roughly 150 years. Not that you never see it. Just almost never. Whereas in the Elizabethan period you see it all the time.

I always have to stress this crucial point, namely that neither those nor any other rhyme pairs were deliberately avoided. It was all a matter of deep intuitions regarding which words in rhyme position would seem consistent with spontaneity and dynamism.

You know that famous quote, where some French poet said that God gives you the first rhyme word, but the poet himself must provide the second—? The Augustan poet worked hard to make it look like just the opposite was happening. The poet throws down the first rhyme word, and then a Voice from the Unfathomable gracefully and elegantly provides the second. Wham.

Looked at that way, {fountain|mountain} is “human all too human.” There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave, to come up with that. Each word is already manifestly implicit in the other.

 

4

 

Thy silver dishes for they meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for me and thee.

 

The above is the worst, and I mean the worst, stanza in “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” by Christopher Marlowe, “Poem V” in Palgrave, 1861.

Most anthologies omit the above stanza, not just because it sucks, but because it is not present in either of the first two print versions of the poem we have. There’s the Passionate Pilgrim version (1599), where the whole poem is only four stanzas long, and there’s the Englands Helicon (1600) version, which really ought to have been the one to which Palgrave and Co. had recourse. How the stanza above-quoted even got in there I don’t know. I’m not the first to doubt Marlowe wrote it.

What’s wrong with it. The Thy is awkward; the do is limping; the {be|me|thee} is handled gracelessly. Other than that, it’s fine. I have “bolded” {meat|eat} not to attack it but to defend it against a misconception.

I have said that one reason the Augustans might intuitively avoid a certain rhyme dyad was because the participants in the pairing bear to each other an essential and inevitable semantic link. One might suppose that {meat|eat} would qualify. Likewise {boat|float}. Likewise {ear|hear}. Likewise {vine|wine}, {meet|greet}, {blame|shame}. Likewise a lot of things. But no. Those pairs have logical links all right, but they are not essential and inevitable.

As Nietzsche says somewhere, “One must reach out and try to grasp this astonishing finesse.[1]” In this case, the fact that meat and eat are not bound up together anywhere near as closely as are, say, any given two words that are synonyms, or antonyms, or are each other’s only possible rhyme partners. To the Augustans, {shake|quake} was a total forget-it; {meat|eat} was fine.

 

5

 

Age, I do abhor thee,
Youth, I do adore thee;
O! my Love, my Love is young!

 

Three lines from a piece customarily attributed to Shakespeare, but as Ricks says, there is no evidence he wrote it. The “evidence” was always that the poem is attributed to him in The Passionate Pilgrim (1599), as is (incidentally) “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” and eighteen or nineteen other random poems. This one is Poem VI (“A MADRIGAL”) in Palgrave, 1861. By 1890, the poem had been bumped back to Poem IX.

Perhaps you can guess what I’m going to say about {adore thee|abhor thee}. The rhyme {abhor|adore} is an uncommon case of perfect antonyms that happen to rhyme, and that also happen to end on a stressed syllable. According to my rhyme theory, this rhyme should be extremely rare for those golden 150 years I keep talking about. Is it? It is. Whereas it’s common enough in Elizabethan poetry.

Someone by this point will say “Suppose we take your word for it that the concordances back you up 100%. The Augustans decommissioned a bunch of rhymes, ones that had such-and-such qualities, etc. Fine. But tell us why this happened, and also why the restrictions were eventually relaxed.”

I’ll tell you why the restrictions were relaxed later. Right now I’ll tell you why they were instituted in the first place. We’ll do a thought experiment.

Why does it seem to go against the spirit of rhyming to “rhyme” a word with itself? It’s not like that’s never happened. Take the beginning of Havelok the Dane:

Hearkeneth to me, good men.
Wives, maidens, and all men.

 

Why does that seem stupid to us? Just because it violates a convention? Or is it because it really does somehow defeat the purpose of rhyming?[2]

Look at these three rhymes: {new|renew}, {long|along}, {wise|otherwise}. Are those good? Or do they, too, seem to be at least somewhat missing some point?

I’m going to propose: Everyone always knew that part of the “point” of rhyming was to secure the effect of bringing disparates together. And not just bring them together, but bringing them together by virtue of an occult resemblance (sound) rather than a reasonable one (meaning). There’s a tiny pleasurable surprise involved, and some kind of energy release. At any rate, it’s not really an option to do otherwise—as every rhymer knows. At least nineteen times out of twenty, the meanings of the two words in a rhyme pair will have nothing to do with each other.

The intuition was: If that’s how rhyme works, why not refine it so that the surprise factor is always high? The “music” will be amped up, if you make sure the rhyme words never bear any resemblance to each other except that of sound. Which entails cleansing rhyme pairs of any ratiocinative content.

 

6

 

Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save, where you are, how happy you make those;—

 

and

 

Like to the clear in highest sphere
Where all imperial glory shines,
For selfsame colour is her hair
Whether unfolded, or in twines:
Heigh ho, fair Rosaline!

 

That first bit is from Shakespeare, sonnet 57; the second is by Thomas Lodge and originally appeared in Euphues Golden Legacy (1590), where, incidentally, the last line does not end with “Rosaline” but with “Rosalynde.” Palgrave changed it to improve the rhyme with shines and twines. In my opinion, that was a mistake, but I can’t get into that right now.

Forget the Lodge for a second. Just look at {slave|save} in the Shakespeare (Book First, Poem X, Palgrave, 1861). I have often puzzled over why this effect is so rare in English rhyming poetry.

 

Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save, where you are, how happy you make those;—

 

Do people not experience that as a rhyme? Maybe. I experience it just fine, but I admit I’m not normal. What about hair and fair in the Lodge? What if I change it to “Rosalinda”—?

 

Like to the clear in highest sphere
Where all imperial glory shines,
For selfsame color is her hair
Whether unfolded, or in twines:
Heigh ho, fair Rosalinda!

 

I’ll put it to you this way. If you hear hair and fair rhyming, that’s not because you are “listening for it.” It’s because you are doing the little extra thing necessary to make them rhyme. Likewise {slave|save}. Likewise all rhyme. This is the deep and subtle thing people don’t understand. The rhyme effect requires the cooperation of the reader.

 

7

 

Yet this abundant issue seem’d to me
But hope of orphans, and unfather’d fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute;

 

Different Shakespeare sonnet, number 97. Book First, Poem XI, Palgrave, 1861. The rhyme {me|thee} is an Augustan no-no, for the same reason {abhor|adore} is. Opposites. But {me|thee} is a worse violation of the principle, because on top of being opposites, me and thee are EEWs (Extremely Elementary Words). {Mine|thine}, {he|she}—same deal.

I think there’s a Beatles record (maybe Hard Days Night) where every single song uses either “me” or “you” as a rhyme word. Indeed, a very pretty essay could be rigged up from the unmistakeable sibling-hood of the lyrics to early Beatles hits and the contents of the Elizabethan songbooks.

 

I think I’m gonna be sad
I think it’s today, yeah
The girl that’s drivin’ me mad
Is goin’ away, yeah

 

If Dowland had got a hold of that, it would be in the Third and Last Booke of Songs or Aires.

I have said the rhyme {me|thee} is an Augustan no-no, but perhaps now is the time to cite the vastly important exception. There is a book, wildly popular when it came out, basically the Palgraves Golden Treasury of the eighteenth century, that was absolutely ramjam with {me|thee}, {me|be}, {he|she}, along with all their permutations. It is known to specialists as “Percy’s Reliques,” but the full title was Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs, and Other Pieces of Our Earlier Poets, Together with Some Few of Later Date. It came out in 1765, and it permanently altered the DNA of William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and (for what it’s worth) Sir Walter Scott.

That book is the seed of the Romantic Age in England. “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,” “The Ballad of Chevy Chase”—these and their likes put a kind of primitivism back on the map, in English art poetry. Suddenly the ideal of packing as much sense as possible into a given line seemed like it might be getting in the way of emotional effectiveness.

And then, too, there was this fatal thought: “Whatever adds to the labor of composition makes the outcome seem labored. Therefore, a certain lunk-headedness in the rhymes is actually desirable—as a show of authentic non-labored spontaneity.”

You wanted to know why the Augustan strictures eventually went away? You’re looking at half of it, right there. The idea is wrong, but it has an irresistible quality.

 

8

 

Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived:

For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred,—
Ere you were born, was beauty’s summer dead.

 

Shakespeare, sonnet 104; Poem XIV and untitled in Palgrave 1861. Let’s set aside the near-antonyms {perceived|deceived}, and look at {unbred|dead}. That, to us and probably to Shakespeare’s contemporaries, is a godawful forced rhyme. “Unbred” is intolerable. It’s things like this that have made many poets over the years point out that our Top Bard was fairly hit-or-miss when it comes to those final couplets. Probably in about a third of the sonnets, the final rhyme punctuates the two weakest lines in the piece.

But don’t worry about that for a minute. I want you to note the freedom with which Shakespeare rhymes opposites. This is, after all, the whole reason I have structured these notes as a gallery tour of Palgrave’s Bālakāṇḍa. To all these Elizabethan poets, a rhyme was a rhyme. What the words meant didn’t matter at all. Some fellow poet might have talked Shakespeare out of {unbred|dead} on the grounds that unbred is just too weird of a word, but it would never have occurred on any level to anyone that antonym rhymes somehow miss an opportunity for a more dynamic, wild, exciting possibility.

Does the reader remember the bit in Moveable Feast, where Hemingway casts a wry look at American expatriates in Paris giddily speaking French in such a way that you could tell they were surprised that what they were saying was coming out in French—? I want to say that English rhymers before the Stuart Restoration were like that with their rhyme technology. They were pretty tickled that their lines could be made to rhyme at all. It took a good while before they became uneasy that they might not being doing it well.

 

9

 

Through the veluet leaues the wind,
All vnseene gan passage find:
That the Sheepheard (sicke to death,)
Wish’d himselfe the heauens breath.
Ayre (quoth he) thy cheekes may blow,
Ayre, would I might triumph so.

 

From “LOVE’S PERJURIES,” Poem XX in Palgrave, 1861. Titled “The Passionate Sheepheards Song” and correctly ascribed to Shakespeare in Englands Helicon (1600), and so ascribed in the Golden Treasury. I have restored the Helicon accidentals, ’cuz I think they’re better, + I have changed Palgrave’s editorial lover back to the original Sheepheard. The poem is a song in Loves Labours Lost.

Hard to find rhymes that were in heavier rotation than {death|breath}. That pair has a cousin, {womb|tomb}, but {death|breath} takes the cake.[3]

But don’t start with me. They’re not opposites. The opposite of death is life, not breath. And womb and tomb don’t even have opposites. Hence, {death|breath} was perfectly fair game, throughout all the centuries of English rhyming. It’s only in modern times that the concept of “rhyme cliché” even exists.

You have to look at it their way, the way of the ancient rhymers. To them, {death|breath} can no more be a cliché than can an iamb. These are the materials out of which one makes poems….

If you were to tell one of the ancient rhymers, “No, no, you can’t be rhyming death and breath, we’ve heard that one too many times already,” the ancient rhymer would look at you with pity. It would be like if you told some kid in a rock band that songs shouldn’t have beats’cuz enough already with beats. Having a beat is a cliché.

They would cordially tell you to get lost.

 

10

When icicles hang by the wall,

   And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,

And Tom bears logs into the hall,

   And milk comes frozen home in pail;

When blood is nipt, and ways be foul.

Then nightly sings the staring owl

                     Tuwhoo!

Tuwhit! tuwhoo! A merry note!

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

 

More Loves Labours Lost. Titled “WINTER,” Poem XXVII, Palgrave, 1861.

Here’s an Augustan no-no we haven’t talked about yet. Rhyme pairs where both of the members belong to a very small set of words forming an elementary semantic category. In the case of {wall|hall}, the category is parts of a house. {Door|floor}—same thing. In the case of {shirt|skirt}, the category is pieces of clothing. {Flute|lute}—musical instruments. And so on. If one goes by statistics, it appears that the unconscious mind connects wall with hall just as securely as if they were synonyms or antonyms. Anyway, Augustan poets avoided {door|floor} to the same degree as they avoided {moan|groan} and {conceal|reveal}.

 

11

 

And each one had a little wicker basket
Made of fine twigs entrailèd curiously,
In which they gather’d flowers to fill their flasket,
And with fine fingers cropt full feateously
The tender stalks on high.

 

Spenser, “Prothalamion.” Poem LIII in Palgrave, 1861. I trust everyone’s had enough. Basket and flasket mean the same thing, or pretty much. Here’s a few more pairs like that from Palgrave’s Book First: {approved|loved}, {roses|posies}, {perplexèd|vexèd}, {time, prime}….

The skeptical reader will be saying: “OK, I’m willing to believe you that synonym and antonym rhymes (and so on) are common enough in the Elizabethan Era. But am I supposed to just take your word for it that these rhymes are not common from 1660 to 1800? I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but I guarantee I could hunt some up, using this website: http://www.rhymezone.com/?loc=bar.”

And you know what, you’re right. You would be able to hunt ’em up. But I never said those rhymes were eliminated. I’m saying they became much less common. So the only way to know if I’m right would be to set parameters and run a bunch of statistics. However, if you do that, you’re gonna find out what I found out, writing my dissertation. Namely, that it takes eighteen months of perpetual number crunching to prove what you already knew, just from reading the poems in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.

I don’t actually need anybody to take my word on it. I’m just showing you what to look for. Go through the Norton Anthology with a sharp pencil. Go through any anthology you want. See if what I’m trying to tell you here doesn’t tally with the facts. I’ll be out back having a cigarette.

 

[1] Man muß durchaus seine Finger danach ausstrecken und den Versuch machen, diese erstaunlich Finesse zu fassen.

[2] Another example, this one from Palgrave, “Book Second.” Sir Charles Sedley begins a piece:

Not, Celia, that I juster am
Or better than the rest;
For I would change each hour, like them,
Were not my heart at rest.

[3] Another rhyme, same exact deal: {night|light}.

 

ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013Boston ReviewFenceHarvard ReviewLana TurnerLIT, and Poetry. His second book, just out from Canarium (February 2017), is called TRY NEVER.

Essays and Comment Issue #68 March 2017
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