Unlike most structured poetry, free verse does not have a defined rhyme scheme. As free verse does not adhere to a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme, poets have complete creative freedom when it comes to rhyming words. And yes, before you say anything, I’m aware that Byron didn’t write in free verse – you try finding an example of a dedicated rhyming scheme in free verse and see how easy it is!

However, some poets do incorporate rhymes into their free verse to create cohesion or emphasise certain parts. So how do rhyme schemes work in free verse, and why might poets choose to use them?

What is a Rhyme Scheme?

A rhyme scheme refers to a regular pattern of rhyming words at the end of lines in poetry. Rhyme schemes are described using letters to indicate which lines rhyme with each other, such as the common ABAB CDCD pattern. This interlacing of sounds creates a rhythmic quality.

In structured verse and fixed forms like sonnets, the rhyme scheme is pre-determined as part of the rules of the form. For example, Shakespearean sonnets have a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

Free Verse and Rhyme Schemes

As free verse poetry does not have to conform to rules about metre, rhythm or rhyme, there are no restrictions on rhyme schemes. Rhyming is optional in free verse. Some free verse poems have no rhymes at all, while others use rhymes sparingly to link certain lines.

Rhyme in free verse is often imperfect or slant rhyme rather than perfect rhyme. This means the sounds are similar but not exactly the same. For example, “time” and “line” would be a slant rhyme pair. Assonance and consonance may also be used instead of rhyme.

Why Use Rhymes in Free Verse?

There are several reasons a poet may choose to incorporate some rhyming into a free verse poem:

  • To create echoes between lines and stanzas and unite themes or ideas
  • To emphasise a particular line or word by setting it apart sonically
  • To evoke rhythm and musicality at certain points
  • To provide moments of surprise, as readers don’t expect rhymes in free verse

So while rhyme schemes are not mandatory in free verse, strategic use of rhyme can be an impactful technique.

Examples of Rhymes in Free Verse

Many renowned free verse poets make sparing but clever use of rhymes. Here are some examples:

In Walt Whitman’s iconic free verse collection ‘Leaves of Grass’, the poem ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’ concludes with this partially, internally rhyming couplet:

“How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

The sudden rhyme of “sick” and “mystical” lends those lines extra prominence.

In ‘Funeral Blues’ by the ever experimental W.H. Auden, the second and fourth line of each stanza rhyme:

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.”

This interlocking ABCB rhyme scheme creates cohesion within the lines, whilst retaining a sense of freedom and spontaneity, rather than the strictness of a sonnet or villanelle.

As these examples show, strategic yet irregular rhyming can be used effectively to enhance free verse poems in subtle but resonant ways. While conformity is not required, resonance and emphasis can be achieved through deft rhyme placement.

The Use of Internal Rhyme

The rhymes in free verse poems don’t always come neatly at the end of lines. Internal rhyme refers to rhyming words that crop up within the lines, rather than at line breaks. This creates rhythm and echoes between words and phrases within the poetic line, linking ideas and concepts. The effect can be more subtle than end rhymes but no less powerful – for example, Walt Whitman’s use of internal rhymes in the above “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” example.

For example, in the poem ‘Jazz Fantasia’ by Carl Sandburg, the lines “Drum on your drums, batter on your banjoes, sob on the long cool winding saxophones” contain the internal rhyme “drum/batter/sob”. This sonic link between the verbs underlines the cacophony of sound described. The poem later uses the internal rhyme “thin tin” which stylistically mirrors the sharp, ringing sound of cymbals.

So while conformity is not the aim, internal rhymes lend free verse natural rhythm and cohesion in provocative ways.

Rhyme and Meaning in Free Verse Poetry

Rhymes in free verse, whether internal or at line ends, can underscore and amplify semantic meaning. When rhyming words are conceptually related in meaning, new metaphorical connections are suggested. The resonance goes beyond harmony of sound into harmony of significance.

For example, in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats, the words “forlorn” and “born” are rhymed to link feelings of melancholy with themes of mortality:

“Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown”

So rhyme schemes in free verse, when handled purposefully, can provide “meaning multiplication” through word associations. Far from random, this poetic device plants interpretive seeds.

Free Verse Rhyme Experiments

Unbound by rules, free verse poetry lends itself to experimental and playful rhyming techniques:

  • Unexpected internal rhymes and non-line-end rhymes
  • Rhymes using suffixes like ing/ung/tion etc
  • Extended rhymes with 3 or 4 syllable echoes
  • Assonance and consonance instead of perfect rhymes
  • Seemingly mismatching slant rhyme pairs
  • Sporadic rhyme placement across stanzas

By breaking conventions, rhyme itself becomes foregrounded, and new sonic textures emerge. American poet Emma Lazarus’s iconic free verse poem ‘The New Colossus’ contains the slant rhyme “breathless” and “endless” which underlines the marathon journey toward freedom. Unexpected but effective!

So whether using regular rhyme in irregular ways, or abandoning perfect rhymes altogether, the inventive poet has limitless approaches to experiment with.

When To Avoid Rhyme

However, for some free verse poems, rhyme can feel forced, overused or unnecessary. By avoiding rhyme schemes altogether, the poet minimises restrictions on word choice. This allows a natural, unfiltered flow of images, metaphors and semantics to resonate.

Wislawa Szymborska’s poem ‘Cat in an Empty Apartment’ uses no rhyme yet still feels lyrical:

“Even weakened by hunger day after day,
he leaves the place precisely at his usual time
and looks around calmly and without regret.”

In this instance, rhymelessness allows direct focus on the cat’s stoic poise, without anything to detract from the core imagey.

So the power of free verse lies in liberation from formal limitations – poets can dial up poetic devices like rhyme, or dial them down and strip the work to its essence. When word and line flow freely, rhyme is rendered beautifully redundant.

J.W. Carey
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