Quick, rhyme the word “lever.” What did you get? Sever, never, endeavor… any others? Maybe some half-rhymes, like leather, weather, heather, feather, together. (Half-rhymes keep the same vowel sound, and allow for a minor deviation in the sound of the consonant—in this case, both the /v/ and the voiced /th/ sounds are voiced frictives, similar in sound.) But are we left with any other rhymes that keep the /v/ sound? Lever… how about river? Does river work?
Many a novice rhymester will attempt to “rhyme” words like lever and river, content to have an identical /-er/ at the end of each word; but in fact these words to not rhyme. For in English, rhyme is based upon the stressed syllable in a word, and with these words, that stress falls not on the last syllable, but upon the one preceding it. And since our ear notes the stress/emphasis as we speak, this is the sound that needs to be matched. In technical terms, we call this a “feminine rhyme.”
Since the vast majority of English poetry is written in iambic (-/) meter, the vast majority of our rhymes are “masculine” rhymes—that is, rhymes of the final syllable. (Moderns, please do not take issue with these terms; they refer to nothing sexist, and are less meaningful than “masculine” and “feminine” nouns in Spanish and French.) Nevertheless, even when a poet writes in iambic meter, they might chose to finish a line or two with an extra unaccented syllable in order to use a particularly choice word; and the following rhyme needs to match.
The rule here is to match the stressed vowel sound, as well as the syllable following. This can be done with single words, as in our opening example, or with multiple words, as in this short Rondeau by Leigh Hunt:
Jenny kissed me when we met,
. Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
. Sweets into your list, put that in:
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
. Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
. Jenny kissed me.
Any poet worth their measure needs to be adept with feminine rhymes; otherwise they will find themselves forced to end every line with a stressed syllable. Which would not do at all for this little gem, as “Jenny kissed me,” is the whole point of the poem, and therefore the necessary ending of that line.
For a good example of expertise with feminine rhyme, I might direct you to Poe’s The Raven—but I’ve featured that poem several times already in this blog. So consider instead To a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which features both masculine and feminine rhymes.
I suppose some of you won’t naturally click the link without a more compelling reason, so here’s an excerpt from To a Skylark that might whet your appetite. This is the stanza that caught my attention once, and made me want to read the whole poem:
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.