Sunday, May 26, 2019

The rhyme burden of various poetic forms

"Rhyme burden" is a number indicating, on average, how many other feet each foot in a poem must rhyme with.

For example, in a Shakespearean sonnet, each line has five feet, and the final foot of each line rhymes with the final foot of one of the other lines. The other feet need not rhyme with anything. We can express this pattern as 0 0 0 0 1. Averaging those numbers gives us a rhyme burden of 1/5 (0.2) for this type of verse.

The terza rima of the Divine Comedy also has five feet per line, and only the final foot has to rhyme with anything. However, each line of terza rima must rhyme with two other lines (0 0 0 0 2), so its rhyme burden is 2/5 (0.4), twice that of a Shakespearean sonnet. As far as rhyme goes, writing terza rima is about twice as hard as writing a Shakespearean sonnet.

Even terza rima, though, is not nearly as hard to write as a good limerick. A limerick consists of 13 feet, the rhyme requirements of which are 0 0 2 0 0 2 0 1 0 1 0 0 2. Its rhyme burden, then, is 8/13 (about 0.615).

Here are the rhyme burden figures for various poetic forms, as well as for a handful of specific rhyme-dense poems. Lines which repeat previous lines (such as the final line of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening") are not included in the calculations.

  • Blank verse: 0
  • Ballad, fourteeners: 0.143
  • Hexameter couplets: 0.167
  • Pentameter couplets, Shakeseparean sonnet: 0.2
  • Tetrameter couplets: 0.25
  • Common meter: 0.286
  • Trimeter couplets: 0.333
  • Ottava rima (Don Juan): 0.35
  • "Sweet Baby James": 0.357 
  • Terza rima (Divine Comedy), "The Road Not Taken": 0.4
  • Petrarchan sonnet (CDECDE sestet), Spenserian sonnet: 0.429
  • Spenserian stanzas (Faerie Queene): 0.435
  • Dimeter couplets: 0.5
  • Petrarchan sonnet (CDCDCD sestet): 0.514
  • "The Witch" (Yeats): 0.533
  • "Leviathan": 0.6
  • Limerick: 0.615
  • "Litany Against Fear": 0.625
  • "Fire and Ice": 0.667
  • "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening": 0.7
  • Monometer couplets ("We Real Cool"): 1
  • Villanelle ("Do not go gentle into that good night"): 1.108

(The two linked poems are my own work, original in form but not in content. They are adaptations of existing poems to new, very complicated rhyme schemes, created as experiments to see whether such schemes were usable.)


Bruce Charlton said...

Does this include having to make more than two rhymes - eg in Spenser's Epithalamion?

My impression is that there is a more-than-linear increase in difficulty as the burden, and other formal aspects, increase.

At a certain point the technical difficulty makes poetry into a verse exercise - the meaning being driven by the demands.

Pearl - by the Gawain poet - has the heaviest rhyme burden of any true poem I know:

Karl said...

The duet "I once was a very abandoned person" from the second act of Ruddigore has a rhyme burden I calculate to be 0.571 and Gilbert keeps it up for three whole stanzas.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Spenser's Epithalamion is hard to calculate because the structure of the stanzas is not very regular and I don't feel inclined to count all the feet in the whole poem!

If we just look at the first stanza, it has 87 feet, and the rhyme scheme is ababccbcbddeffeegg. Each "a" line has to rhyme with one other line, each "b" line with three others, each "c" line with two others, and so on -- so the rhyme scheme can be represented as 1 3 1 3 2 2 3 2 3 1 1 2 1 1 2 2 1 1. Adding those numbers up and dividing by 87, we get a rhyme burden of 32/87, or about 0.368 -- in the general neighborhood of terza rima in terms of difficulty.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Pearl has the rhyme scheme ababababbcbc (3 5 3 5 3 5 3 5 5 1 5 1), and I think it's in tetrameter (though I'm a little uncertain on that point, since I can't pronounce Middle English and don't know which vowels if any are silent), for 48 feet per stanza. This would give it a rhyme burden of 44/48, or about 0.917.

Bruce Charlton said...

Pearl is not syllabic - but uses the old-middle English practice of two half lines, each with two stresses; as I describe here:

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Four stresses per line is tetrameter in my book.

Of course the alliteration requirements make writing something like Pearl even more difficult than the extremely high rhyme burden figure would suggest.

Bruce Charlton said...

"Four stresses per line is tetrameter in my book." maybe for the purposes of this analysis, but not *really*. In principle there could be any number of extra syllables.

Tolkien translated Pearl, but was clear that this was essentially impossible due to the massive constraints of its structure of both rhyming and alliteration.

What Tolkien produced was a useful paraphrase, but not poetry. Whereas Pearl itself is, for me, almost unbearably moving, first-rate poetry. (I had the good fortune to learn enough Middle English from age 14, that although I can't understand every word and nuance - it works for me as poetry).

Karl said...

When Bruce Charlton recently featured “I once was a very abandoned person” on his blog, I discovered that I had understated its rhyme burden. I had overlooked the throwaway lines that follow the dance interludes, but each of these rhymes with four of the preceding lines. So the scheme is
0 0 0 1
0 0 0 4
0 0 0 1
0 0 0 4
0 0 0 4
0 1
0 1
0 0 0 4
0 0 0 4
and the rhyme burden is 24/32 = 0.75.

Karl said...

Concerning "Fire and Ice" I have to object that rhyming a word with itself is too easy. Here, from the Merchant of Venice, are ten lines of pentameter of which nine rhyme with each other, for an unprecedented rhyme burden of (9×8)/50 = 1.44.

If you did know to whom I gave the ring,
If you did know for whom I gave the ring,
And would conceive for what I gave the ring,
And how unwillingly I left the ring
When naught would be accepted but the ring,
You would abate the strength of your displeasure.

If you had known the virtue of the ring,
Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,
Or your own honor to contain the ring,
You would not then have parted with the ring.

How beautiful upon the mountains are their feet!

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