The relatively recent transformation of English poetry into blank verse
is often blamed on some inherent peculiarity of the language. Following
this dictum, not only original English poetry, but even tranlsations from
languages where rhyme is still prevalent, often dispense with rhyme. When
asked about the properties of English that make this crucial attribute
of poetry unwelcome, translators often point to the absence of a declension
system, which supposedly makes the language less susceptible to rhyme.
However, rhymes relying on case endings are not only unaesthetic, they
are simply not very common. For example, in Russian, where the system of
cases is advanced, case endings are generally unaccented. Therefore, they
cannot serve as rhymes, the latter being always determined by the accented
syllable. Similarly, in English we cannot use the imperfect ending "-ed"
for the purposes of rhyme. Rather the roots must rhyme: plowed/allowed
rhymes, but not exposed/estranged. (There are instances where endings are
indeed accented and can be used as rhymes in Russian as well as in English.
In the latter we have the imperfect/participial formant "-ought/-aught";
e.g. fought, bought, whose roots obviously do not rhyme. Notably, this
rhyme is not very attractive.)
The greatest source of rhymes, however, appears to be the peculiar
affinity each language has for a certain set of sounds and letter sequences.
We need only examine some basic words to be assured of this:
eat, beat, neat, meat, feat, heat, seat, teat.
Without making any claims about the origin and formation of these words,
we can regard them as the basic array "-eat" with various consonants
attached at the front to produce different words, unrelated in meaning.
The English language, and many other languages so far as I can judge, comprise
a multitude of such blocks and through them are easily distinguished from
one another. On the one hand, formation of such blocks seem to turn language
into a very crude mechanism. Words appears analogous to readings from a
kind of counter, and as the letters in the "first position" change
new meanings are assigned to new letter sequences. On the other hand, these
blocks give language its distinct character: English becomes the language
of -ow, -uel, -ost, -ance, to name just a few peculiar English sounds and
spellings. Every language, it seems, has its own "familiar sounds"
that more than any peculiarity of syntax are responsible for its distinctness.
This is the reason, incidentally, why someone who hears an incoherent speech
can sometimes guess what language is being spoken.
Let us examine the same block further:
treat, street, discrete, Crete
We have moved on to slightly more complicated cases. Here, words of
different function and different in spelling are united within the same
block. The last choice should not appear surprising. It elucidates that
tendency of languages that helps create these blocks in the first place.
English, it seems, has a peculiar trait of assimilating others "democratically."
Stricter languages, where words must be pronounced as they are written,
do considerable violence in assimilating foreign words, twisting their
roots until they fit a sound/spelling pattern acceptable in that language
(e.g. what Russian sometimes does to French words). English attempts to
save the original spelling as much as possible - it is a language mindful
of original forms - and alters only the word's pronunciation. Therefore
it follows that in English many different letter sequences yield the same
sound. This is how becomes Crete in spelling, but in pronunciation joins
the "-eat" block. We should note that such manner of appropriation
renders English rhyme very attractive, as words that do not look alike
may combine as rhymes. The ability to rhyme unlike words seems to give
the poet some kind of linguistic proficiency, though we must admit that
few poets are concerned with the physical appearance of their words. And
of those that do, e.g. the visual poets, even fewer concern themselves
with creating rhymes that in writing do not immediately seem to rhyme.
Yet, I believe that many choices in composing verse were tacitly based
on this very consideration.
Further, it should not be assumed that the appropriation into blocks
occurs only with foreign words. The greater part of linguistic content
is supplied by the predecessor language. Now, the transition from Old Language
into New Language largely concerns the new ways to pronounce old words.
It should be noted that English speakers are perpetually simplifying their
language, eliminating entire blocks of sounds in one blow by adjoining
them to greater blocks. Therefore, sad though it is to say, the English
language is acquiring more and more rhymes as its words are reduced to
a small number of sound patterns.
cost, lost, frost, exhaust
The first three words represent three different parts of speech belonging
to the same block. Since similarity of root sounds is not necessarily due
to same root origin (besides, rhymes like perceive/conceive are for the
most part unacceptable), various words of thoroughly unrelated meaning
and serving distinct functions may belong to the same block. Needless to
say, rhymes that use words differing in function appear less forced or
even accidental and therefore create the sense of spontaneity or freedom
that often surprises us in rhymed poetry. The fourth word on this list
is an example of the process described in the previous paragraph, i.e.
of the simplification of language and the appropriations of smaller into
larger blocks. Judging by its spelling, exhaust once had quite a
different sound, one not pleasant to the current English ear. As we said
earlier, the phenomenon of rhyme is due mainly to the tendency of languages
toward certain sounds, and also to the rejection of other sounds, as the
fourth example illustrates.
English, no less than any other language, possesses these tendencies.
Moreover, a certain aspect of English thought makes the language highly
conducive to rhyme formation (i.e. the need we experience for simplification.)
However, this ideology also makes rhyme an object of scorn in our language.
We are aware of our desire to simplify language and to dispense with
thought by means of cliches and catchy phrases, which we have found
best achieved through rhyme! Our highly developed tendency to assimilate
words gives rise to a culture where these blocks of words all at once are
thrown in our faces as if in accusation, i.e. in what we call pop-culture.
Modern scholars attack rhyme itself as the cause of these phenomena, while
in reality the excessive presence of rhyme in rap and pop music and commercial
jingles is only a symptom of the above mentioned ideology. A truly alarming
phenomenon that no one has yet come to address is that everywhere we are
losing ground to the advances of barbarism, and in retreating curse the
ground we have just surrendered as naturally devoid of culture.