Philobiblon: A question of rhyme

Monday, March 20, 2006

A question of rhyme

It is not that history repeats itself, exactly, just that the same debates come up again and again. So it was that when "English literature" was just getting established in the 16th century, there was a concerted struggle over whether poetry should rhyme.

"But the question of rhyme was nor simply a small technical question about the following of ancient models. It was a fundamental element in the definition of poetry itself and the question of its relationship to the other half of the liveral arts, the quadrivium, those arts concerned with measure and proportion. The opponents of rhyme -- among whom we may principally number William Webbe and Thomas Campion, along with Ascham himself -- all acknowledge the close relationship of poetry to rhetoric, or eloquence in general, and thereby agree that poetry has been a principal source of civil order." (in Kinney (ed) The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1500-1600, CUP, p. 42)

Webbe was seeking "the means, which we yet want, to discern between good writers and bad, but perhaps also challenge from the rude multitude of rustical rhymers, who will be called poets, the right practice and orderly course of true poetry." (From A Discourse of English Poetry, 1586, quoted p. 265.)

Looking at some of the rhymes I'm working on now, I kind of wish that they'd won at the time, rather than blank verse having had to wait until the 20th century to win out.

Three of the four pamphlets I'm looking at that are "elegies" for Dame Helen Branch (who died aged 90 in 1594) give her burial date. One doesn't, which has led me to think that it is likely to have been the earlies, produced before the funeral.

But it has the following lines ...

The yeare was fifteene hundreth, ninetie foure,
And grateful Abchurch hath her bones in store.

Now does "in store" suggest something temporary? There were - for reasons on which I am unclear - 18 days between her death and her funeral. (The only possibly explanation I have is that London had been hit by massive, exceptional storms in the weeks before her death, which might have disrupted things?)

Or is it "in store" just because it rhymes with "foure"?

There may be no answer to this, but I am open to suggestions...


Blogger clanger said...

Sounds like just the use of a rhyming term to signify she was entombed or buried there. Could mean a vault, but it may just be a poetic way of saying she was buried there. Have you been there to check? Many London church vaults are intact, and coffins have plates on them. Say hello from Clanger.

The bones and mouldy bits were 'stored' there of course, but the soul flew free. Separation of corporeal and ethereal.

Clanger loves blank verse, but is quite pleased that so much poetry managed to rhyme as much as it did for so long, until the poetic wasteland of the 20thC.

For the truly post-modern/early-modern-whacko, check out shape poems such as George Herbert's 'Easter Wings':

The 17thC equivalent of a batpoem.

Quick Robin, to the Bardmobile.

3/20/2006 06:20:00 pm  
Blogger Diane said...

What do you mean by blank verse "winning out" in the 20th Century? There is less blank verse being written than rhyme (and yes, I am aware that someone recently wrote an entire screenplay in blank verse, but pick up a journal with poetry and you will have to look hard to find any blank verse).

Forms, both the rhyming and non-rhyming kind, have picked up a little in popularity in the last couple of decades, but there are many, many journals who publish nothing but free verse, or who warn that formal verse is something they rarely take. There is still a huge bias in favor of free verse.

3/20/2006 07:01:00 pm  
Blogger mapletree7 said...

hmm, but surely there was already rhyming with Chaucer in the 1300s:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
10 That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Personally I love the kennings from old english best.

3/20/2006 08:35:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I'd be happy to admit that I'm not "with" 21st-century verse - it was just my impression that in fashionable modern circles rhyming was out of fashion. (I may be slightly biased by my recently extensive encounters with 16th-century verse, and in earlier times with the sort of poetry submitted to small Australian rural newspapers. It always rhymed. Unfortunately.

On Helen Branch, I know that she was buried in St Mary Abchurch, the structure that sadly disappeared entirely in the Great Fire. (It is just up the hill from the pudding shop at fault.) The question is whether this particular elegy was published before she was actually buried - in the 19-day gap. Judging from other examples such pieces were often published within 10 days or so, so it is perfectly logistically possible. And the fact that the date of her burial isn't given in the extended title, when it is in every other case I've seen (and I've been looking at quite a few), is suggestive.

3/20/2006 09:15:00 pm  

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