Rhyme is an old though probably not ancient element of English poetry. According to Sir John Glubb, “In the field of poetry and romance, it was the people of the Arabian peninsula who were innovators. Rhyming verse, unknown to the Greeks and Latins, was brought by them to Europe.”

Actually, rhyme occasionally showed up in classical literature. In Catullus, for example. Rhyme traveled via the French troubadours into English after the Norman conquest in 1066.

Chaucer, of “The Canterbury Tales” fame, writing in the 1300s, was an accomplished rhymer. By the time of Shakespeare rhyme was widely practiced. However, it was not without controversy. In 1602, Thomas Campion, a skillful lyricist, wrote a pamphlet entitled “Observations in the Art of English Poesie,” attacking the “childish titillation” of rhyming. One year later, Campion drew a riposte from Samuel Daniel, soldier and sonneteer, with “A Defence of Ryme.”

Daniel defends rhyme as “an agreeing sound in the last silables of seuerall verses, giuing both to the Eare an Eccho of a delightful report & to the Memorie a deeper impression of what is deliuered therein. Ryme is no inpediment to his (poet) conceit, rather giues him wings to mount and carries him, not out of his course, but as it were beyond his power to a farre happier flight.”

By the end of the 19th Century poets could choose rhymed, blank or free verse. Rhyme made it into the 20th Century in the verse of the First World War. The shock of the war brought an end to Victorian optimism, but not to the ability of poets to concentrate their emotions in the trenches, notably Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Some of the most powerful poetry of the era was penned by these soldier poets.

Most, if not all, of the major poets of the 20th Century wrote rhymed verse. One thinks of W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Frost. Most children’s and nonsense verse is in rhyme.

The cultural upheaval of the 1960s caused somewhat of a schism in poetry. The folk-rock lyricists became widely recognized as poets and troubadours, while experimental and mainstream poetry veered off into dry, flat-sounding free verse: Concrete and Sound poetry being two examples. Dylan Thomas shifted identity into Bob Dylan.

Critics of rhyme have complained that it is artificial. People don’t naturally talk in rhyme. And so it is, as all art is artifice. Rhyme is artificial in music just as it is in spoken verse. Rhyme has been more accepted in music, that’s all.

Some people think that because rhyme is “artificial” it is more labored than free verse and therefore less authentic. However, rhymed verse has sometimes come out with astonishing swiftness. Merrill Moore was probably the most prolific American poet who ever lived. By age 37 he had written 50,000 or more sonnets, most in shorthand he had learned specifically for the task. Louis Untermeyer said that Moore could spin off one hundred sonnets in an afternoon, an incredible feat by any standard. While not great, the sonnets do make sense.

Rhyme is alive and well today. It is used skillfully by women as well as men. You can find it all over the Web. Rap is a form of spoken poetry frequently using rhyme. Its vocabulary and subject matter may be alien to many of a more “literary” inclination. It has nonetheless reinvigorated the oral tradition and spread far from its African-American roots.

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