Rhyme & Reason: Verse, Structure, & Memory

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There is no doubt that initially poetry, or verse, in the classical western sense, was a mnemo-technical tool; a method to make it easier to remember large quantities of information. Before the invention of script, the history of a family or a tribe, its laws and customs, its myths and rites, etc. had to be preserved by memory and oral tradition.

Some individuals had the special task to preserve the knowledge and to forward it to a successor, generation after generation. Such a person had to be a "library" in himself, able to memorise a huge amount of information, and to recall it on an instant when that was required.

Memory can be trained, although that is sadly neglected these days. Perhaps its "raw capacity" can be increased by regular and systematic effort; but most important is to structure in the mind the material one wants to remember. An ordered mass of information is easier to memorise; and the more structured it is, the easier it is. On an advanced level one can work with associations and analogies, but let us stay at a more fundamental level for now.

Rhythm is a structure, and words arranged in a rhythmical manner are easier to remember. Thus we get the meter of poetry, or verse.

"Some rhyme a neighbours name to lash;

some rhyme (vain thought) for needful cash;

some rhyme to court the country clash

and rise a din.

For me, an aim I never fash:

I rhyme for fun!"

(Robert Burns, Scottish poet)

A song contains a lot of order. Music is structured sound and lyrics with a melody are easier to recall than words alone. Music and lyrics support each other, so by combining them, both are more firmly anchored in memory.

Words, whether rhythmically recited or sung, get even more structure by the use of rhymes, alliterations, or assonances; of which rhymes are the most discernible for most people.

Words are rhyming if there is a correspondence of terminal sounds. In English, whose orthography (spelling) is very complicated, words like "word-sword" are rhyming with each other in script, but not in sound; while "lewd-gratitude" and "sky-high-I" provide genuine rhyming, as do "dough-toe-grow" and "all-crawl".

One-syllable rhymes are said to be masculine, while two-syllable ones are called feminine. The reason is French, whose feminine suffix (-e) is counted as a separate syllable in poetry. (Today mute in speech, it was pronounced in the past.)

An assonance is an incomplete rhyme, with different consonants but the same sounds of stressed vowels. Ex: "late-make".

Alliteration, which was dominating in old Norse and Germanic poetry, is based on the initial sound of words being the same consonant. (Or different vowels, which is not at all as effectual. The examples here show consonant-alliteration.):

William Shakespeare:

"What, fifty of my followers in one clap."


John Milton:

"Beside him hung his bow."

(beside-bow; him-hung-his)

Ben Jonson:

"To drink such balderdash and bonnyclabber."


Alexander Pope:

"That counterworks each folly and caprice."


And then two of the finest lines of poetry in the English language:

John Dryden:

When sparkling lamps their sputtering lights advance."

(sparkling-sputtering; lamps-lights)

Edgar Allan Poe:

"What a tale of terror now their turbulency tells."


Alliteration is used in most languages. Generally it is more common than rhyming.


(Rainer Maria Rilke):

"Ich finde dich in allen diesen Dingen,

denen ich gut und wie ein Bruder bin."


"Sola mihi talis casus, Cassandra canebat."

Names are sometimes based on alliteration, which I wrote about in Why “Donald Duck” is Bad: Assimilation, Alliteration & How to Create a Name.

Read also about how alliteration can become exaggerated in Tongue Twisters.

Today seen merely as aesthetic elements of verse, the practical origin of these tools is almost forgotten. Yet they are still used as support for memory - not at least by children, who have a natural tendency to order their knowledge and an inborn instinct for rhythm and rhyming.

Sometimes that instinct goes so far that the order, or the structure itself becomes more important than the content of a verse. This is most clearly manifested in so-called nursery rhymes and nonsense verses, the latter an English speciality. These two categories are different, although they can sometimes overlap each other. Nursery rhymes sometimes have a serious background.

The most famous source of nursery rhymes is Mother Goose, originally a French invention, created by Charles Perrault. Later others have added to the tradition.

“Old Mother Goose,

When she wanted to wander,

Would ride through the air

On a very fine gander.

Jack's mother came in,

And caught the goose soon,

And mounting its back,

Flew up to the moon.”

The following one is a riddle, the answer is an egg.

Humpty Dumpty

Sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty

Had a great fall.

All the King's horses,

And all the King's men

Couldn't put Humpty

Together again.”

Agatha Christie was inspired by nursery rhymes, which play an important role in several of her books, like this from A Pocket Full of Rye:

"Sing a song of six pence, a pocketful of Rye,

Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie

When the pie was opened the birds began to sing.

Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?

The king was in his counting house, counting out his money,

The Queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey

The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes

When there came a little dickey bird and nipped of her nose."

The nonsense literature got its name from Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense (1846). He made the limerick popular. It is a nonsense poem, nowadays set with five lines, rhyming aabba. Metrically the lines are anapestic (a of three feet, b of two). The form is Irish in origin.

The first limericks had the same word at the end of lines one and five, or two and five, as in:

"There was a young lady in Riga,

who went on a ride with a tiger;

they returned from the ride

with the lady inside

and a smile on the face of the tiger."

A genuine limerick must have the name of a place at the end of line one, but sometimes that is ignored:

"In beauty I am not a star.

There are handsomer fellows by far.

Myself I don't mind it

for I am behind it,

It's the people in front get the jar."

Sometimes the language is used in a free way, to say the least - as in this example by an unknown author:

"A wonderful bird is the pelican.

His beak can hold more than his belican.

he can take in his beak

food enough for a week,

but I'm damned if I see how the helican."

Another form of nonsense verse, the "Cherihew", was created by Cherihew Bentley (1875-1956). It consists of four lines and is based on a personal name.

"John Stuart Mill

by a mighty effort of will

overcame his natural bonhomie

and wrote Principles of Political Economy."

Obsolete in modern poetry, rhythm, rhyme and alliteration thrive in "popular culture". Being musical in nature, it is not surprising to find them in lyrics reaching millions of people, while the free verse of modern poetry remains a matter for a selected few.

The poetic quality of pop-culture lyrics is not always the best; most of the material is quite awful. Not all, however; there are many gems, and they can be very effective in their own special context.

These lines from Queen's We Will Rock You are an example of effectively used rhyming, which works well together with the rhythm.

"You got mud on your face

You big disgrace

Someone better put you back into your place"

The following lines were written by Brian Eno (from Spider and I - Before and After Science, 1977). Brian uses both rhyming (I-sky-fly), alliterations (spider-sit-sky sound), (watching-world-without; web-world-without), and an effective repetition (of the "world without sound") in the end of lines 2 and 4.

"Spider and I sit watching the sky

On a world without sound

We knit a web to catch one tiny fly

For our world without sound"

Strictly, sp- does not alliterate with s-, but only with another sp-; the same goes for sk-; but that can sometimes be ignored.

Is it possible to write two lines where each essential word of the first line is rhyming with the corresponding word in the second line? I think it can be done, but the lines would be artificial and strained. The closest I can recall to have encountered is from Only When I Lose Myself with Depeche Mode, in which we find:

Did I need to sell my soul, for a pleasure like this

Did I have to lose control, to treasure your kiss”

We have soul-control (not a perfect rhyme), pleasure-treasure and this-kiss.

Rappers often use this technique, even try to take it further than this. It can be very creative, but their multiple rhymes are rarely strict.

Another bizarre rhyming can be found in Chameleon with Cockney Rebel, which ends:

“[...]and she will surmise the guise

of chateau eyes

and rise . . .”

Here we have four rhyming words, in an 11-word piece of a text: surmise-guise-eyes-rise.

If we consider pairs of rhyming words, what is the maximum number of syllables for which one can find a pair? We then refer to true rhymes. The longest I know of in English is three. As in generate-venerate.

Anyone knowing an example of more than three syllables in English, please comment below. Only perfect rhymes please.

(This article is based on material previously published in TMA/Meriondho Leo.)

Related articles:

Tongue Twisters

Transcription & Transliteration: Some Thoughts on Written Language & Foreign Names

Phonetic Script & How Books of Religion Shape Languages

Why “Donald Duck” is Bad: Assimilation, Alliteration & How to Create a Name

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2 years ago


I like your article rhymes really helps to have a huge impact to audience.

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2 years ago

Yes, rhymes are very efficient in their way.

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2 years ago

Rhymes can literally enlighten everything, sometimes in studying I used to sing the things that I need to review with rhymes so I can memorize and understand it easily.

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2 years ago

You used structure to easier remember! It's very efficient.

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2 years ago

When I was in highschool we usually used nursery rhymes in creating jingle, it gives a big impact to audience because of it's rhyming style.

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2 years ago

Yes, rhymes have a big impact. It's a musical quality which speaks to our mind.

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2 years ago