I’ve posted once before on Feminine Rhyme, but as some visitors have been looking for more examples of it, I figured it was time to post some more. Which isn’t the easiest to find, actually—for the vast majority of English poetry is written in Masculine Rhyme.
“Masculine” rhyme refers to rhyming words with their stressed final syllable (for example: cat/mat, refrain/complain, respect/collect, learn/return). “Feminine” rhyme refers to rhyming words by their stressed penultimate syllable (for example: keeping/weeping, smarter/barter, fire/desire, collection/correction). Since most English poetry is written in iambic meter (with a rhythm that goes – / – / – / – / ), the final syllable in each line tend to be stressed, resulting in masculine rhyme. One contributing factor in this in English there a more word choices for words with final stress (including all single syllable words) than there are for words with penultimate stress; and many of the words with penultimate stress are that way because of suffixes like –ing and –er, which the poet may not wish to overuse.
However, some important and commonly-used words still have penultimate stress, such as fire, power, forever, and beauty; so a poet must be able to master feminine rhyme if he or she means to use them. Often, poems that are otherwise dominated by masculine rhymes will have a few lines of feminine rhyme specifically to accommodate these kinds of words. For example, Sir Philip Sydney uses feminine rhyme in the sestet of his sonnet on Desire:
. But yet in vain thou hast my ruin sought,
. In vain thou mad’st me to vain things aspire,
. In vain thou kindlist all thy smoky fire.
. For virtue hath this better lesson taught,
. Within myself to seek my only hire,
. Desiring naught but how to kill desire.
And he uses the same rhymes in his Sonnet From the Aged. Meanwhile William Wordsworth used feminine rhyme in the octet of his sonnet on London, 1802:
. Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
. England hath need of thee: she is a fen
. Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
. Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
. Have forfeited their ancient English dower
. Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
. Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
. And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
When feminine rhymes are used more frequently, they can alter the tone of the poem. In the following poem by Ben Johnson, the feminine rhyme actually creates the framing for each stanza of the poem—and gives us a narrative voice that is more personal and less pedantic:
Ah! do not wanton with those eyes,
. Lest I be sick with seeing;
Nor cast them down, but let them rise,
. Lest shame destroy their being.
Ah, be not angry with those fires,
. For then their threats will kill me;
Nor look too kind on my desires,
. For then my hopes will spill me.
Ah! do not steep them in they tears,
. For so will sorrow slay me;
Nor spread them as distraught with fears,—
. Mine own enough betray me.
You can note in this poem that feminine rhyme can work across multiple words (as in kill me/spill me and slay me/betray me), since they are still rhyming the second-to-last syllable on each line.
Johnson’s poem was written in iambic ( – / ) meter, adding the additional unstressed syllable at the end of his lines to get the feminine endings. A poem written in trochaic meter ( / – ) has the same alternating stresses, but ends with every line feminine. I’d estimate about 90% of English verse is written in iambic, with the remaining 10% divided between purely trochaic verse, anapestic verse ( ~ ~ / ) , and the rarer dactylic verse ( / ~ ~ , which results in rhymes that are easily perceived as comic). But I do have for you the following example of trochaic verse, by Thomas Campion, written in tercets:
Think’st thou to seduce me then with words that have no meaning?
Parrots so can learn to prate, our speech by pieces gleaning;
Nurses teach their children so about the time of weaning.
Learn to speak first, then to woo; to wooing much pertaineth:
He that courts us, wanting art, soon falters when he feigneth,
Looks asquint on his discourse, and smiles when he complaineth.
Skillful anglers hide their hooks, fit baits for every season;
But with crooked pins fish thou, as babes do that want reason:
Gudgeons only can be caught with such poor tricks of treason.
Ruth forgive me, if I erred from humane heart’s compassion,
When I laughed sometimes too much to see thy foolish fashion:
But, alas, who less could do that found so good occasion?
And finally, one more example of trochaic verse—although in this case, the poet only rhymes every other line:
Sorrows of Werther
by William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)
Werther had a love for Charlotte
Such as word could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.
Charlotte was a married lady,
And a moral man was Werther,
And for all the wealth of Indies
Would do nothing for to hurt her.
So he sighed and pined and ogled,
And his passion boiled and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more by it was troubled.
Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.
Hmm, I suppose I can’t really mention trochaic verse and feminine rhyme without referencing Poe’s The Raven, which uses a great deal of internal feminine rhyme (that is, rhyming insides of lines, instead of only at the end). But instead of reprinting that, you can listen to it here.
For those of you interested in this kind of rhyme (or just writing a report on it for school), I’ll provide a few more examples in the next entry. And for those of you who are already well-read, I invite you to suggest some examples in the comments section.
Enjoy The Raven on YouTube.
If you like this poem, you may enjoy this discussion of its structure and artistry.
Leave a comment below about what you thought of this interpretation (and yes, I know what words I missed), or make a suggestion for what other poems you would like to hear performed.
Or check out some of my other videos if you like.