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To Begin at the Beginning: the Role of the Onset 2

The previous post in this series examined the role of the onset in Wilfred Owen’s poetry. In this post, I’ll consider the subtle ways in which the onset participates in the rhyme scheme in a couple of poems by Simon Armitage.

Many contemporary poets exploit a wide variety of rhymes, often within a single poem. One piece with a fascinating relationship between onsets is Armitage’s sonnet “Poem”, which mixes nuclear and fraternal rhymes:

And if it snowed and snow covered the drive
he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night.
And slippered her the one time that she lied.

And every week he tipped up half his wage.
And what he didn’t spend each week he saved.
And praised his wife for every meal she made.
And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.

And for his mum he hired a private nurse.
And every Sunday taxied her to church.
And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse.
And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse.

Here’s how they rated him when they looked back:
sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.

If one ignores the onsets, the rhyme scheme appears to run aaaa bbbb cccc dd, an incredibly simplistic scheme which parallels the matter-of-fact tone of the poem. An attempt to parse the rhymes into a more complex scheme on the basis of the codas would produce something highly irregular, such as abab cddc efee gg. The first stanza is the easiest to parse, and abab the most sensible option, based on the identical codas of side:lied, but it does leave the somewhat distant relationship drive:night in which the only features that the codas share is that they are not sonorants.

The second stanza is more problematic: none of the codas is identical and each possible relationship has complications. The closest relationship is saved:made, on the basis of which the stanza is parsed as cddc, but this relationship would involve syllable-internal intrusion. The relationship wage:saved would involve swapping the continuancy feature in the final two segments, and the relationship saved:face involves breaking the continuancy and coronal features.

In the third stanza, determining fellowship on the basis of the codas would leave church without a fellow and produce a three-fellowed rhyme in a poem which otherwise uses only two-fellowed rhymes. However, there is no question about the final stanza, as this contains only two candidates for fellowship.

A standard approach to rhyme obviously has grave problems parsing the rhyme scheme of “Poem”. However, if one determines fellowship within stanzas partly on the basis of shared features of the onsets, a choice of schemes more complex than aaaa bbbb cccc dd and more regular than abab cddc efee gg emerges: abab cdcd efef gg–the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet form–or possibly aabb cdcd eeff gg.

As all the onsets in the first stanza are coronal, determining fellowship boils down to a choice between drive:night; side:lied (abab) or drive:side; night:lied (aabb). Since the former choice involves a stronger relationship between the onsets of the a-fellows in that they both contain sonorants and obstruents, it seems reasonable to opt for this as the scheme. This also accords with, but provides a stronger relationship than, a choice based on the codas and provides a rhyme scheme which looks like a Shakespearean sonnet.

In the second stanza we are faced with three labial segments ([w]age, [m]ade, [f]ace) and one coronal ([s]aved). Obviously, the place feature is insufficient to define fellowship here, so we turn instead to the manner feature, which divides the stanza neatly into two sonorants ([w] and [m]) and two fricatives ([s] and [f]). Thus this stanza is parsed as wage:made; saved:face (cdcd).

The third stanza can be parsed as efef or eeff. As with the first stanza, the former choice accords with the sonnet rhyme scheme and is based on a stronger relationship: nurse:worse ; church:purse as opposed to nurse:church; worse:purse.

Interestingly, the least intimate relationship between onsets occurs in the gg stanza: back:that, two voiced obstruents. Although comparable weak relationships are found in other stanzas, they are partnered by stronger relationships. However, there is no functional need for a strong relationship here, since there are only two candidates and therefore no questions as to what rhymes with what.

These observations indicate that the onsets are strengthening in their role as compensation for a weakening in the differential role of the nuclei. This compensation is not so strong if the codas provide enough differential information to determine fellowship (e.g. side:lied versus drive:night) or if there are only two candidates. This strengthening is probably motivated by a preference for a complex but regular rhyme scheme, for which the nuclei normally provide sufficient differential information for fellowship within a single stanza.

Another poem by Armitage informative for the status of onsets is the single stanza, 24 line “Kid”, the title poem of the collection from which “Poem” also comes, and therefore roughly contemporaneous with the latter work:

Batman, big shot, when you gave the order
to grow up, then let me loose to wander
leeward, through the wild blue yonder
as you liked to say, or ditched me, rather,
in the gutter … well, I turned the corner.
Now I’ve scotched that ‘he was like a father
to me’ rumour, sacked it, blown the cover
on that ‘he was like an elder brother’
story, let the cat out of the bag on that caper
with the married woman, how you took her
downtown on expenses in the motor.
Holy robin-redbreast-nest-egg-shocker!
Holy roll me over in the clover,
I’m not playing ball boy any longer
Batman, now I’ve doffed that off-the-shoulder
Sherwood-Forest-green and scarlet number
for a pair of jeans and crew-neck jumper;
now I’m taller, harder, stronger, older.
Batman, it makes a marvellous picture:
you without your shadow, stewing over
chicken giblets in the pressure cooker,
next to nothing in the walk-in larder,
punching the palm of your hand all winter,
you baby, now I’m the real boy wonder.

This poem uses exclusively feminine rhymes, including one mosaic rhyme (took her:shocker ll.10,12), all of which end in unstressed schwa, in a highly irregular scheme: abbc acdd efef ghij jikg khll. As expected, the stressed syllables participate in the rhyme scheme.

Fellowship was determined by finding as many identical vowels as possible then looking for the closest overall match in the remaining fellows. This was straightforward for longer:larder (identical onsets, and low, back vowels) and winter:wonder (identical onsets and near-identical codas). The choice for picture:cooker was determined by the lack of any other possible fellows within reasonable distance. The choice of caper:motor; took her:shocker was based on the backness of the vowels and identity of the codas in the latter pair.

Seven out of the twelve rhymes are fraternal (that is, have identical vowels); the remaining five do not have identical vowels. These two types are not arranged with any regularity. Five of the onsets of the seven fraternal rhymes (i.e., approximately 70%) share fewer than three features. In three out of these five, one fellow has an empty onset (order:corner ll.1,5; clover:over ll.13,20; shoulder:older ll.15,18). Four of the onsets of the five other rhymes (i.e., 80%) share three or more features. In two of these, the onsets are identical (longer:larder ll.14,22; winter:wonder ll.23,24). These figures indicate that, for this poem at least, onsets in a rhyme relationship are more likely to bear some similarity to each other if the nuclei of the syllables differ. It would therefore appear that the role of the onsets strengthens to compensate for weakening in the role of the nuclei.

Besides the features mentioned above, there is another notable aspect to the rhyme scheme of “Kid”, namely that the onsets of the second syllable are not always identical between fellows as would be expected with feminine rhymes. Examining these yields startling results. Of the twelve rhymes, seven exhibit this dissimilarity, the same proportion as exhibit vowel identity. However, onset dissimilarity is in no way connected to vowel identity, as only four out of these seven (i.e., approximately 56%) do not exhibit vowel identity. Strikingly, in all seven rhymes, both fellows share three major features. Two of these rhymes, d and k, may share four features, if, for cover:brother, the dental nature of the two fricatives counts, and if, for picture:cooker the secondary, palatal articulation of the /k/ counts as parallel to the frication in the affricate. There is a striking regularity to the shared features, as shown below:

proportion in which
– lack of sonority is shared: 6 out of 7, approximately 84%
– continuancy or lack of it is shared: all 7, i.e., 100%
– non-continuancy is shared: 6 out of 7, approximately 84%
– voicing or lack of it is shared: 5 out of 7, approximately 70%
– place is shared, excluding d and k: 3 out of 7, approximately 42%
– place is shared, including d and k: 5 out of 7, approximately 70%

It therefore appears that rhymes with dissimilar and similar onsets in the second syllable are involved in a separate rhyme scheme from the stressed syllables. This makes sense if one recalls that the rimes of all the unstressed syllables in the poem are identical, an unexpected feature of the work. Thus the onsets of these syllables appear, in terms of this separate subscheme, to be strengthening in their roles and simultaneously, in terms of the overall feminine rhyme scheme, to be weakening in their roles in order to compensate for weakening in the differential role of the nuclei. This is a very similar situation to that discussed above in relation to “Poem”.

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