Rhyme was still comfortable on its throne…
Without anecdote, banter, originality, or charm, I am going to plunge directly into recounting the history of rhyme in modern English. This history is not well known—and, for the most part, even those who know it do not know it. Yet no non-trivial account of Wallace Stevens’s artistic practice can do without a reckoning on this head. And so, I shall tell you what I know.
In the middle of the 16th century, rhyme was still comfortable on its throne. One would no more attempt to write a poem without rhyme than one would today attempt to make a song without a rhythm. The drive to make a song is partly a drive to channel rhythm; the two are very tightly bound up with each other. Only some kind of egg-headed pervert, consciously setting out to mark herself as a visitor from Mars, would ever dream of doing otherwise. And THAT is the level of hold that rhyme had, in 1550. If you wanted poetry at all, you wanted rhyme. It wasn’t like today. People lusted for it.
The great first challenge to rhyme’s sovereignty—a challenge from which (in a sense) it was never really to recover—was the work of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the other Elizabethan playwrights, who wrote in blank verse for the stage. The achievement of those poets was more or less unmistakable, and yet: a play is not, after all, a poem. A lyric poet sitting or standing in the audience and watching Henry IV, Part 1 might very easily imagine that the artistic criteria that applied to his or her own labors were surely quite different from those that applied to playwriting. The abandonment of rhyme might seem to make sense in the context of writing headlong torrents of passionate and spontaneous-seeming talk, but a poem was another matter. At any rate, poets (with VERY few exceptions) did not turn their backs on rhyme. Indeed, when Shakespeare or Marlowe wrote what they thought was a poem, they went straight back to rhyme.
As for the rhymes themselves—and what counted as a “good” rhyme—that was easy. One, a rhyme was good if the two words’ endings sounded more or less alike, and two, there was a strong preference for what we now call “masculine” rhymes—ones where the words in the rhyme pair terminate with stressed syllables (say, “tin” and “violin,” as opposed to “trying” and “frying”). Aside from these considerations, one rhyme to the Elizabethans was as good as another.
But an interesting change was in store. Around the time of the Stuart Restoration (1660), we observe something odd. Certain rhymes—certain whole categories of rhyme—were decommissioned.