What’s in a rhyme?

From Simon Jenkins's article in the Guardian of 18 April 2008 about the original of Betjeman's delightful verses, "A Subaltern's Love-song", written in love-sick praise of the young, healthy, tennis-playing home counties girl Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, who died at 92 as Mrs Jackson the other day:  

To be sure, Hunter Dunn inhabited a world that today could hardly seem less poetic, that of Camberley golf clubs, tennis rackets, Hillmans, blazers, lime juice and gin. Nor did she evoke from Betjeman any great verse, many of the lines being close to doggerel. I have never understood "furnish'd" by an Aldershot sun, that is also "westering, questioning". It suggests a preference for sound over sense, as does the line, "How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won". The rhyming of walk with talk, and shorts with sports is equally plodding.  [Emphasis added.]

Guardian letters, 22 April 2008

I enjoyed Simon Jenkins's piece about Joan Hunter Dunn (Comment, April 18). But what on earth is wrong with the rhymes that he denounces as "plodding": "walk" with "talk" and "shorts" with "sports"? I think we should be told, should Jenkins be so bold.
Brian Barder


Joan Jackson née Hunter DunnIt's of minuscule interest, perhaps, that the Guardian made two tiny changes in my letter as submitted:  in the first few words I had referred, accurately and I thought courteously, to "Sir" Simon Jenkins;  and in the last few words I had written "should Simon be so bold", which was perhaps unjustifiably familiar on my part.  And I should have remembered that journalists of independent spirit (of whom Simon Jenkins is undoubtedly one) don't always like to have public attention drawn to their gongs. For once I have no complaints about the Guardian's editorial meddling with my deathless prose (or verse). 

But I still don't see what's wrong with those rhymes, which are not obviously any more plodding or clunky than any of the others in Betjeman's poem — er, verses, all true and in some cases ingenious rhymes.

PS:  If you visit this web page you can click on a little red 'play' triangle in a small blue frame and hear John Betjeman reading the whole piece to an appropriately enthusiastic audience, as well as seeing the full text of it.


7 Responses

  1. Tim Weakley says:

    Compare the accuracy of JB’s rhyming with the dissonances of Hymns A & M where God, for example, is variously made to rhyme with blood, good,  rood, and road.  Not intended to be ‘poetry’?  But many hymns were written and published as verse and later set to music. 

  2. Tony H says:

    Brian and Tim,
    Can we learn anything from  Ben Jonson's wonderful " A Fit of Rhyme against Rhyme"

    Brian writes:  Wonderful indeed — and new to me!  (Interesting that 'conceit' evidently used to rhyme with 'weight'.)  But rhyme often adds immeasurably to the impact of poetry and is absolutely essential to verse, in my view, and the effects that can be achieved by cautious use of para-rhyme (see e.g. much Auden) are often most pleasing.  For some examples from my own extremely exiguous oeuvre, please see this, which uses almost exclusively para-rhymes until the last stanza, when it switches gear and uses true rhymes, like (I hope) a piece of music going into a major key at the end for final effect. 

  3. Tim Weakley says:

    Many thanks, Tony!  BJ's poem was new to me – much appreciated.

    Brian, how are poetry and verse distinguished or demarcated  for you?  Is verse, for example, simply that which is divided into — well, verses?  I ask not out of mischief but because different people seem to distinguish the terms differently, while for others (perhaps less instructed) the terms are interchangeable.  You did classics at school: is BJ right, that the Greeks avoided rhyme whereas the Romans sometimes used it?  I fancy blank metric verse, saga and epic stuff, is by far the older; I can imagine Cro-Magnon bards and skalds 20,000 years ago chanting epic verse (poetry?) that was handed down orally.

    Brian writes:  Rightly or wrongly, I use 'verse' to refer to relatively light-weight stuff — lyrics for songs or sketches, often but not always witty or at any rate humorous, often little better than doggerel (the kind of stuff inside pretentious greeting cards or on tombstones or accompanying flowers and teddy bears laid at the site of a murder), generally using rhyme (often false) and strict metre, not always successfully achieved, for its effects.  Poetry aims at making a serious statement about the human condition or other similarly weighty matters, even when using humour to do so, and it comes in all shapes and sizes, although the sounds and rhythms of the words must mark it off from prose even if there are no strict metric patterns and no rhymes.  Like all art, it requires iron discipline, for which metre and rhymes or para-rhymes should be a valuable aid in many cases:  'poetry' which reads like prose if you type or read it without chopping it up into lines is almost certainly not the real thing.  As for ancient Greek and Latin, my classical education is now too far behind me for confidence, and I was never any good at it anyway.  But AFAIR, you're right that the Greek poets didn't use rhyme, at least in the strict modern sense (see this in Wikipedia):  Latin poetry relied mainly on strict metrical schemes, sometimes of great complexity, and my impression, partially confirmed by this, is that rhyming came in pretty late.  But all this might be seriously misleading:  Ronnie, or someone, come to the rescue, please!    

  4. Has Jenkins not read a poem before? The line he has difficulty with is actually, ‘Furnished and burnished by Aldershot sun’, not ‘an Aldershot sun’. What’s not to understand? Does he think that ‘furnished’ means something done by Maples or Heal’s rather than simply ‘provided’ or ‘supplied’?  ‘Westering, questioning’ may indeed be a weakness in the poem.  When is the sun not ‘westering’, and what is it here questioning?   But even if the phrase is lame Jenkins surely doesn’t fail to understand it in the way he seems not to understand ‘furnished’.

    Had it not occurred to Jenkins that the rhymes he claims to be plodding were meant to be so? Betjeman can thereby show he is extracting the uric acid out of not only himself, but the whole situation.

    In the 1960s I read the poem to a class of Tunisian students. Tunisians are polite people and their enthusiastic reception may merely have been a manifestation of it. On balance, though, I like to think not.

    On your later comment, Brian, when you say that rhyme . . . is absolutely essential to verse’ I take it, in the light of your distinction between verse and poetry, you do not intend that to cover poetry. You would otherwise condemn most of Shakespeare and Milton.   All poetry is verse but not all verse is poetry.

    Brian writes:  Of course:  it would be idiotic to say that rhymes are essential for all poetry, as distinct from verse.  But I certainly hold that the rhythm and the sound of the words are essential elements in all poetry, as well as verse, being the elements that generally speaking distinguish it from prose.   

  5. The essential element in poetry and verse is where the lines end. In prose, that is at the discretion of the publisher. In poetry and verse it is the inalienable right of the author to decide.

    Brian writes:
    I assume that this is
    Meant ironically, Barrie,
    And that you're not suggesting
    That by arbitrarily chopping
    Up a piece of prose
    Into lines and verses that end

    In funny places
    You can turn it
    Into poetry?
    (Or are you?)

    (With acknowledgments to E J Thribb age 73-3/4) 

  6. All verses and poems have lines whose length is determined by the writer. That is not to say that all lines whose length is determined by the writer are poems and verses.

    There was a young man, call him Barder,
    Who argued with impassioned ardour.
    He wrote like that Thribb,
    Even if just ad-lib,
    And made us all work that bit harder.

    Brian writes:

    A certain old fellow called Barrie
    My linguistic thrusts loves to parrie;
    In language he knows
    That just anything goes
    Which makes Barrie as happy as Larrie 

    (Two rhymes for 'England' are not easy to come by….) 

    (A Tale of Flame Hair and Inflammation.)

    Joan Hunter Dunn has now passed on

    she’s up above – in her tennis skirt. 

    And the Devil’s ensured that lustful John 

    can not quite see; and not quite flirt.


    For the smoke and fume it drifts and swirls

    and he can’t catch her eye, or get a good look; 

    while saucy lines about nubile girls 

    no longer rhyme in his char-edged notebook.  


    The nearest church lies myriad miles; 

    mute bells melt back to primal mould. 

    This knave no more may walk those aisles; 

    his Hunter-Dunn pipe-dream grown cold.


    No trains in Hell pass matchwood walls 

    against whose grain, wet women bathe. 

    Here, flesh is burned in sulph’rous halls 

    and blooded breasts torn all a-swathe.


    From this dread sight no poems come 

    comeuppance manifests come down; 

    while overhead: miss Hunter Dunn 

    made young again; burnt Aldershot Brown.


    And the game poor Betjeman now knows 

    is the Devil’s sport, as frustration mocks. 

    There’s a gap in the smog that eternally shows 

    just a glimpse of miss Hunter Dunn’s tennis socks.

     Brian writes:  Splendid!