Rhyme Scheme Definition
Rhyme scheme (RHY SKEEm) is the ordered occurrence of rhymes at the end of the lines of a poem or verse. While rhyme can also occur within lines of poetry, the term rhyme scheme indicates the pattern of rhyme at the end of the lines. In other words, a rhyme scheme is the blueprint for a poem’s rhyming pattern.
The word rhyme was first used to indicate “agreement in terminal sounds” in the 1560s. It derives from the Middle English ryme or rime (circa 1200), which meant “measure, meter, rhythm” and later, “rhymed verse” (mid-13th century.). Rhyme scheme first occurred as a literary term in 1931.
Types of Rhyme Scheme
While most contemporary poems tend to be written in unstructured free verse, and Japanese poetry often relies on syllabic structure to create auditory patterns, historically most Western poems were written according to specific rhyme schemes that corresponded with the poems’ form.
When people discuss rhyme schemes, they use letters of the alphabet to indicate the repeating patterns of the end rhymes. For example, if someone were describing the rhyme scheme of a six-line poem with an alternating line rhyme, they would write it out like this: ABABAB. This notation indicates that lines one, three, and five rhyme with each other (A) and lines two, four, and six share a rhyme (B) that is different from the A rhyme. Spaces added between sets of letters (AABB CCDD, etc.) indicates that different stanzas have a different rhyme scheme.
There are many rhyme schemes that exist, but these are some of the most popular.
- Alternate rhyme: In poems with an alternate rhyme pattern, every other line rhymes with each other. This is also called an ABAB rhyme scheme.
- Ballade: A ballade is a type of poem. Its rhyme scheme consists of three eight-line stanzas (octets) with an ABABBCBC pattern followed by a BCBC quatrain (the envoi).
- Chain rhyme: Here, the rhyme patterns link stanzas by carrying one end rhyme from a previous stanza over to the next and then introducing a new end rhyme in that same stanza. For example, the pattern ABA BCB CDC is a chain rhyme. The linked nature of the rhymes is reminiscent of a chain, thus the pattern’s name.
- Couplet or coupled rhyme: A poem written in couplet rhyme has pairs of rhyming lines, each pair with its own rhyme scheme. For example: AA BB CC and so on.
- Enclosed rhyme: This four-line pattern gets its name because the first and fourth lines rhyme, enclosing the rhyming second and third lines. Enclosed rhymes are indicated by ABBA.
- Keatsian ode: This rhyme scheme—written as ABABCDECDE—was primarily used by John Keats in his odes.
- Limerick: A poetic form, limericks consist of five lines with the rhyme scheme of AABBA.
- Monorhyme: Poems written in monorhyme use a single rhyme throughout. For example, a monorhyme quatrain—a four-line stanza—would be AAAA. This form was particularly prevalent in classical Latin and Arabic poetry.
- Ottava rima: With this rhyme scheme, poems follow an ABABABCC pattern.
- Rhyme royal: Introduced by Geoffrey Chaucer, poems written in rhyme royal generally utilize iambic pentameter in concordance with a rhyme scheme of ABABBCC.
- Rondeau: A form of French verse similar to the ballade, rondeaus have an ABaAabAB rhyme scheme. The capital letters indicate lines that are repeated verbatim as refrains, while the lowercase letters indicate new words that still follow the rhyming pattern.
- Rubaiyat: This is a form of classical Persian poetry that utilizes an AABA rhyme scheme.
- Terza rima: Rather than an entire poetic form, a terza rima is a three-line rhyming stanza. They follow a pattern of end rhymes that mirrors this structure: ABA BCB CDC DED EFE etc. They are reminiscent of chain rhymes, except the terza rima specifically has three lines per stanza, while chain rhymes can have more.
- Triplet: Related to a monorhyme, a triplet is a three-line stanza (tercet) with shared end lines, such as AAA, BBB, CCC, etc.
- Scottish stanza: This six-line pattern gains its name from Scottish poet Robert Burns, who used its AAABAB rhyme scheme in many of his works.
- Simple rhyme or simple four-line rhyme: Poems written in this pattern have a basic rhyme scheme of ABCB used in quatrains (four-line) stanzas or poems.
- Sonnets: These poems are 14 lines long and follow required metrical patterns as well as rhyming patterns. There are three main types of sonnets, each with its own corresponding rhyme scheme: the Petrarchan sonnet (ABBA ABBA CDE CDE or ABBA ABBA CDC DCD), the Shakespearean sonnet (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG), and the Spenserian sonnet (ABAB BCBC CDCD EE).
Rhyme Schemes and Fixed Verse
Free verse does not adhere to any set criteria for meter, rhyme, pattern, syllabic count, or any other set form. The poet is “free” to make any choice they wish as they compose the poem, rather than following a template of set patterns.
Fixed verse indicates that a poetic work was composed using specific rules or set forms. There are many different templates that fixed verse can follow, including patterns of meter, refrain, syllabic count, stanza length or count, or the repetition of certain words or phrases. Fixed verse can also refer to other specific form requirements, as in the sestina, ode, sonnet, or villanelle.
The set formulas of rhyme schemes are frequently a component of fixed verse, although they are not required. A poem can be a fixed verse poem without utilizing a rhyme scheme; however, any poem that follows a rhyme scheme is automatically considered fixed verse.
Rhyme Schemes and Blank Verse
The term formal poetry often refers to poetry that follows a set meter and rhyme scheme. Poetry that retains a precise meter, such as iambic pentameter, but does not utilize rhyme is called blank verse. Blank verse was frequently used in Elizabethan drama, such as plays by William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, as well as in the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton.
There are some advantages to writing in blank verse. It allows poets to access rhythm through syllabic patterns of stressed and unstressed sounds. Poets are also able to use a wider range of vocabulary because they aren’t restricted to words that fit within the rhyme scheme.
Literary works that adhere to rhyme schemes in addition to meter, however, have a stronger melodic pattern because the rhythm of meter is complemented by the addition of predictable patterns of rhyme. Rhyme schemes also serve as a strong mnemonic device, helping actors better memorize their lines for verse plays and allowing readers a greater level of sonic engagement with poems on the page.
Why Writers Use Rhyme Schemes
The repeating sonic patterns of rhyme bring musicality and rhythm to poems that rhyme, differentiating them from prose and free verse. Rhyme adds a lulling calming effect to poems as it allows readers to anticipate subsequent sonic repetitions and immerse themselves in that pattern.
Rhyme is also a useful mnemonic device as the repetition of each similar sound creates a framework for easy memorization. Rhyme schemes give order and predictable patterns to rhymes, allowing them to flow in a harmonious and pleasing pattern.
Rhyme Scheme in Songs
Rhyme schemes are important elements of music. Songwriters utilize rhyme schemes for the same reasons as poets: adding a pleasant melodious quality that also serves as a mnemonic device for the audience.
The most common rhyme schemes in songs tend to be monorhymes, simple rhymes, and coupled verses. Songwriters often elect to use rhyme schemes where only some lines in each verse contain end rhymes, while other do not rhyme at all. Examples of these rhyme schemes include XAXA (X indicates an end word that does not rhyme), AXAA, AAXA, and AAAX. Hip hop and rap tends to use coupled rhyme schemes as well as internal rhyme.
Examples of Rhyme Scheme in Literature
1. Sir Thomas Wyatt, “They Flee From Me”
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
This stanza follows the required ABABBCC rhyme scheme of rhyme royal, and it adheres to the additional formal requirement of being a septet (seven-line stanza) written in 10-syllable lines.
2. Major Jackson, “Aubade”
Jackson’s charming poem follows an alternate rhyme scheme throughout its eight quatrains, which he establishes in the first stanza:
You could be home boiling a pot
of tea as you sit on your terrace,
reading up on last night’s soccer shot
beneath a scarf of cirrus.
Jackson’s ABAB rhyme of pot with shot and terrace with cirrus carry on throughout the poem as he rhymes additional lines according to an alternate rhyme scheme of CDCD, EFEF, etc.
3. Chelsea Rathburn, “Postpartum: Lullaby”
Rathburn’s poem follows a coupled rhyme scheme of AA, BB, CC, etc., as her first three stanzas illustrate:
When two-thirty midnight ten
When the baby cries again
When at her breast a parasite
When she is up and down all night
A voice like a wound in her head in her ear
A rational wound calm and clear
Rathburn’s use of this simple rhyme scheme follows the lulling pattern of a lullaby. This also allows the disturbing scene within the poem to take on even more power as the postpartum depression she describes stands in sharp relief to the comforting and predictable sonic pattern of this rhyme scheme.
Further Resources on Rhyme Scheme
Musicnotes has a great article on how to use rhyme to strengthen one’s songwriting.
The Guardian published an analysis of the power of rhymed verse in theater.
This video presents the fundamental rhyme schemes used in rap music.
Poet Patrick Gillespie addresses the movement away from rhymed verse in contemporary poetry.