A rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhyme between lines of a poem or song. People usually use letters to show which lines rhyme with which other lines. For example, in a poem that is ABAB, the first and third lines rhyme with each other and the second and fourth lines rhyme with each other. The most basic rhyme schemes are AA, AAA, AABB, ABAB and ABBA. There are also more complicated schemes, such as ABABBCC (rhyme royal), ABABABCC (ottava rima) or ABABBBCBCC (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), an ABAB rhyme scheme
- The fat 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 for rhyme scheme. Five-line stanzas can have any of ten schemes with two different rhymes: AAABB, AABAB, AABBA, ABBAA, ABABA, ABAAB, AABBB, ABABB, ABBAB, ABBBA. Another possibility 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 shows up in Italian text but not in other languages:
- 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 a poet, period of time, or type of poetry can have a preferred rhyme scheme. For example, the Scottish poet Robert Burns preferred the scheme AAABAB. Rhyme royal, ABABBCC, was common in medieval English poetry. Ottava rima was typical of epic poems. Many great epic poems were written in Italian, Spanish or Portuguese with ABABABCC scheme.
- Josef Berg Esenwein, Mary Eleanor Roberts, The Art of Versification. Revised Edition, Home Correspondence School, Springfield 1921.