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To Begin at the Beginning: the Role of the Onset 1

As I stated in the first part of this series, the traditional conception of rhyme doesn’t allow for syllable onsets to play any role in rhyming, except in identical twin rhyme. The problem is that this analysis can’t account for much 20th century and contemporary rhyme practice, in which the onset muscles in on defining fellowship when vowel identity is violated or carried to an extreme. I’ll examine Wilfred Owen’s work with reference to the former circumstance and, in the next post, a couple of poems by Simon Armitage to demonstrate the latter, but first, a few words about how rhyme practice changed last century.

In the 20th century, constraints on rhyme in poetry were largely relaxed. Anne Ridler, in her 1951 introduction to the second edition of The Faber Book of Modern Verse (1951) states that “poets shunned full rhymes … because of their scarcity in English, which made so many of them too stale for further use.” A major development of the First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, is the use of a peripheral rhyme scheme in a great number of poems. Louis MacNiece, a major poet of the 1930s, used nuclear rhyme in his “Bagpipe Music”. Vernon Watkins’ poem“White Blossoms”, written in the 1940s, alternates between fraternal rhyme, peripheral rhyme, removed rhyme and, in one instance, remote rhyme. Alternation between different forms of rhyme, including twin rhyme, has become a pattern for numerous poets. To snatch a few names from the air, it is found in the work of John Berryman, Seamus Heaney and Simon Armitage.

Wilfred Owen
In much of Owen’s finest and best-known work, the use of peripheral rhyme is consistent. Such rhyme schemes involve identical onsets and codas, with the relationships between stressed vowels being reduced to featural. An analysis of all peripheral rhyme schemes in The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by C. Day Lewis (Chatto & Windus, London, 1964) reveals that almost all these poems include a varying number of departures from the strict peripheral norm.

These aberrant rhymes, which can be either relative or twin, make up approximately 31% of the rhymes in Owen’s relative rhyme schemes. Of the relative rhymes in these aberrations, around 35% are removed (e.g., cheese:joysA Terre” ll.40,41; [w]once:FranceFutility”, ll.2,4). Some fall between peripheral and removed (crisp:grasp Exposure” ll.37, 38), permit protrusion (brambles:rumbles “Exposure”, ll.7,8; openings:deepening The Show” ll.14,15), permit one empty onset (apple:suppleArms and the Boy” ll.10,11) or an /h/ (heels:curls “Arms and the Boy” ll.11,12), which is close to empty. Occasionally, both onsets or codas may be empty (amber:emberMiners” ll.26,28).

Most of these aberrant rhymes can therefore be thought of as lax peripherals, rather than wholesale departures from the scheme. The examples with one empty onset are slightly problematic in that it is difficult to decide whether they are peripheral or removed. It is possible to think of these as having two empty onsets and protrusion in one fellow. However, fraternal rhymes in which one fellow has an empty onset could therefore also being analysed as identicals with protrusion.

Owen very occasionally admits fraternal rhymes to his peripheral rhyme schemes. I have found six such rhymes, of which five (i.e., 83%) exhibit a close relationship between the onsets:

[g]lozed:[k]losed (velar stops) “Exposure” ll. 26,29
deci/[m]ation:imagi[n]ation (nasal stops) “Insensibility” ll.18,19
[d]rained:[t]rained (alveolar stops) “Insensibility” ll.33,34
[dZ]est:[tS]est (palatoalveolar affricates) “A Terre” ll.58,61
he[r]eafter:[l]aughter (liquids) “‘Has Your Soul Sipped’” ll.2,4

The one remaining fraternal (there:air “Miners” ll.14,16) pairs [D] with an empty onset. In his fraternal rhyme schemes, Owen takes no more notice of onset relationship than other rhyming poets.

Though his rhyme schemes are basically masculine, Owen also makes use of feminine and mosaic rhyme in approximately 21% of his relative rhymes:

(a) mystery:masteryStrange Meeting” ll.30,31
(b) silent:salient “Exposure” ll.2,3
(c) ever:over “A Terre” ll.28.29
(d) knive us:nervous “Exposure” ll.1,4
(e) snow-dazed:sun-dozed “Exposure” ll.22,23

As examples (a) to (d) show, only the first syllable usually takes part in the relative rhyme scheme. Example (e) is the only instance I found in Owen of both syllables participating in the relative rhyme. The difference lies in the stress pattern of the rhyme fellows: in (a) to (d), only the initial syllable is lexically stressed; in (e), both syllables of the compounds are lexically stressed. This also holds for Owen’s rare trisyllabic rhymes, allowing us to generalise that only lexically stressed syllables participate in Owen’s relative rhyme schemes, as all his masculine rhymes are lexically stressed.

In the next post, I’ll look at a couple of Simon Armitage poems with some surprising characteristics in the rhyme schemes.

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