Rainer Maria Rilke called rhyme "a goddess of secret and ancient coincidences." He said that "she comes as happiness comes, hands filled with an achievement that is already in flower." Rhyme has the joyousness of discovery, of hidden relation uncovered, as if by accident. It is a form of relationship and connection, of encounter and metamorphosis.
Rhyme occurs, as Joseph Brodsky argued, "when one thing turns into another without changing its substance, which is sound." It creates a partnership between words, lines of poetry, feelings, ideas. (Gerard Manley Hopkins called rhyming words "rhyme fellows.") There is something charged and magnetic about a good rhyme, something unsuspected and inevitable, utterly surprising and unforeseen and yet also binding and necessary. It is as if the poet called up the inner yearning for words to find each other.
Rhyme foregrounds the sounds of words as words. It functions as a marker signaling the end of a rhythmic unit. It is mnemonic:
Red sky at night, sailor's delight,
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.
Two different kinds of rhyme capture two different portents here: one joyful, the other dangerous.
Pleasure abides in the sound of words coming together, in the pulse and beat, the rhythm of their conjoining. ("The chances of rhyme are like the chances of meeting -- / In the finding fortuitous, but once found, binding," Charles Tomlinson writes in his poem "The Chances of Rhyme.") There was systematic rhyming in ancient Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Norse, and the Provencal and Celtic languages, but the origins of rhyme in English are mysterious since no one really knows quite how or when rhyme actually entered our language. The word "rhyme" was spelled "rime" until the 17th century.
I've always enjoyed the light rhymes -- and sustained analogy -- in John Crowe Ransom's playful catalogue, "Survey of Literature," which has a comic truthfulness.
In all the good Greek of Plato
I lack my roastbeef and potato.
A better man was Aristotle,
Pulling steady on the bottle.
I dip my hat to Chaucer,
Swilling soup from his saucer,
And to Master Shakespeare
Who wrote big on small beer.
The abstemious Wordsworth
Subsisted on a curd's-worth,
But a slick one was Tennyson,
Putting gravy on his venison.
What these men had to eat and drink
Is what we say and what we think.
The influence of Milton
Came wry out of Stilton.
Sing a song for Percy Shelley,
Drowned in pale lemon jelly,
And for precious John Keats,
Dripping blood of pickled beets.
Then there was poor Willie Blake,
He foundered on too sweet cake.
God have mercy on the sinner
Who must write with no dinner,
No gravy and no grub,
No pewter and no pub,
No belly and no bowels,
Only consonants and vowels.
("Survey of Literature" appears in John Crowe Ransom's "Selected Poems." Knopf, 1991. Copyright 1924, 1927, 1934, 1939, 1945, 1962, 1963, 1969 by Knopf. Copyright renewed 1952, 1954 by John Crowe Ransom.)