Internal Rhyme I

This is the first of two or three posts on internal rhyme in later medieval English and Scottish verse.  There is a small craze for internal rhyming in later Middle English and Middle Scots poetry.  In the last few weeks (well, when not swamped by teaching and revision), I’ve been trying to untangle the various threads and traditions involved.

As so often in later Middle English poetics, the starting point for one thread is Chaucer.  In Anelida’s Complaint, his partial imitation of the form of Machaut’s lais lyriques, Chaucer has two matching stanzas, each of nine lines, in which each line of ten syllables is divided up into three groups of four, four and two.  The final syllable of both groups of four in each line rhyme, whilst the second syllable of the group of two provides the rhyme scheme for the stanza as a whole (aabaabbab).

I think Chaucer borrows the idea from some of the stanzas in Machaut’s lais written in very short lines.  We know, because he borrows from it in the Book of the Duchess, that Chaucer knew Machaut’s Lay de Confort, which has stanzas with very short lines.  Here’s the beginning of one stanza: ‘Mais ne m’esmay, / Quant je t’ay, / Car li plaint…’  These are presented as separate lines in the text-only Machaut manuscripts, but when read or sung, they give a similar effect: groups of three lines with a tail-rhyme pattern, aab, often with shorter third line.

One of Machaut’s lais, L8, ‘On parle de richesses et de grant signorie’, plays a game of decreasing the number of syllables per line in each stanza until it arrives at a stanza with lines of three and two syllables.  The final stanza of this lai is given its own special layout in some of the manuscripts, rather akin to graphic tail-rhyme in English, drawing attention to the way three short lines join into one unit:

Paris, BN fonds français 1585

From lais like these, Chaucer could have got the idea to combine three short rhyme units into one longer line (or, thinking in reverse, to subdivide one longer line into three shorter units).  Once Chaucer had settled on the decasyllabic line in his poetry, he could think of ways to elaborate it.  The majority of Anelida’s Complaint is written in nine-line stanzas, but two pairs of stanzas vary this form.  One uses a tail-rhyme pattern (sixteen lines with rhyme which reverses at the mid-point, aaabaaabbaaabaaa) and one uses internal rhyme.

Scribes then had to work out what to do with Chaucer’s elaborations.  One of the earliest copyists of Anelida’s Complaint was John Shirley.  Shirley, in the heading of Anelida’s Complaint in TCC MS R.3.20, writes that this poem contains ‘þe moost vnkouþe metre coloures and Rymes þat euer was sayde tofore þis day’ [the most unprecedented metres, rhetorical colours and rhymes that were ever created before this moment].  Shirley spotted Chaucer’s innovations, and devised strategies for representing the unprecedented poetry on the page.  He marks the internal rhyme in these stanzas with virgules, the slash punctuation mark often used to mark pauses within the line.

Shirley punctuating the internal rhyme in TCC R.3.20

This punctuation occurs (sometimes patchily) in three of the manuscripts I’ve looked at, though other manuscripts don’t have it (and there are two manuscripts I haven’t got to yet).  Caxton reproduces the punctuation in his 1477 print of Anelida and Arcite.  This popularized the layout and this verse technique, and in the next blog I’ll show you some Scottish poems which extend Chaucer’s use of internal rhyme in various directions.

The same stanza in Caxton’s 1477, also with internal rhyme punctuated.

When I tweeted these photos, @Chescarar asked me if I thought the punctuation was intended to dictate how the line was read.  I think the punctuation does mean that we have to read it as short units rather than a long decasyllabic line, something like ta-ta-ta-TA [breath] ta-ta-ta-TA [breath] ta-TA.  This gives the effect of a love-lorn speaker gasping out each of these short units, embodying the required emotion via form and layout.  If editors of the poem print this stanza without the internal-rhyme punctuation, using conventional syntactical punctation instead, you lose this steer as to how it might be read.  Here’s an online edition with conventional punctuation which reads very differently.


One fifteenth-century poet makes enterprising use of these possibilities of internal rhyme.  The Lovers’ Mass is a poem in MS Fairfax 16 which parodies the different parts of the liturgy of the mass.  Each element of the Mass is given an equivalent poetic form (the Officium or introit is a roundel, for example) and the speaker prays for mercy to Venus.  The three stanzas which represent the tripartite Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison are each in the same stanza-form, an eight-line version of the Anelida’s Complaint form (aababbab).  The poet parodies the liturgical act of crying out for divine mercy by substituting Chaucer’s form in which forlorn lovers beg their loved one for pity on their sorrow.

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