A rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhyme between lines of a poem or song. It is usually referred to by using letters to indicate which lines rhyme; lines designated with the same letter all rhyme with each other. Therefore, it is the pattern of end rhymes or lines. The most basic rhyme schemes are aa, aaa, aabb, abab and abba. There are also more complicated schemes, as ababbcc (rhyme royal), abababcc (ottava rima) or ababbcbcc (Spenserian stanza). Sonnets may have very different rhyme schemes, Italian (abba abba cdc dcd, abba abba cde cde, abba abba cde edc), French (abba abba cdcd ee), Spenserian (abab bcbc cdcd ee) or Shakesperian (abab cdcd efef gg).
- Bid me to weep, and I will weep
- While I have eyes to see;
- And having none, yet I will keep
- A heart to weep for thee.
- (Robert Herrick, To Anthea, who may Command him Anything)
- The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
- The furrow followed free;
- We were the first that ever burst
- Into that silent sea.
Some schemes are common, the other are used very rarely. The scheme aabbcc is simple and can be found everywhere, but the scheme abccba, used by Robert Browning in the Meeting at Night, was never popular:
- The grey sea and the long black land;
- And the yellow half-moon large and low;
- And the startled little waves that leap
- In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
- As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
- And quench its speed i' the slushy sand.
There are many possibilities of rhyme scheme. For example five-line stanza can have one of ten schemes with two different rhymes: aaabb, aabab, aabba, abbaa, ababa, abaab, aabbb, ababb, abbab, abbba. Another possibily is of course aaaaa. Notice that two or three rhymes can be linked to each other by repeating the same vowel. The rhyme scheme of Giambattista Marino's poem Adone is abababcc (ottava rima), but in this strophe all rhymes are based on the vowel [i]. This feature can be seen only in Italian text:
- Giunto a quel passo il giovinetto Alcide,
- che fa capo al camin di nostra vita,
- trovò dubbio e sospeso infra due guide
- una via, che’ due strade era partita.
- Facile e piana la sinistra ei vide,
- di delizie e piacer tutta fiorita;
- l’altra vestìa l’ispide balze alpine
- di duri sassi e di pungenti spine.
A rhyme scheme can be typical for a poet, an epoch or a genre. For example the scheme aaabab is typical for Scottish poet Robert Burns. Rhyme royal ababbcc is typical for medieval English poetry. And ottava rima is typical for epic poems. Many great epic poems were written in Italian, Spanish or Portuguese with the use of abababcc scheme.
- Josef Berg Esenwein, Mary Eleanor Roberts, The Art of Versification. Revised Edition, Home Correspondence School, Springfield 1921.