I’ve been tracking the life-cycle of rhyme royal, the stanza form (rhyme-scheme ababbcc) that Chaucer developed and used in his Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Criseyde, and some of his Canterbury Tales in the last decades of the fourteenth century. In the first half of the fifteenth century, it was the fashionable stanza form that every courtly poet wrote and every reader wanted to read.
By the third quarter of the fifteenth century, rhyme royal had become ubiquitous. The author of an advice book for young men on manners and courteous behaviour tells his young readers that the ‘metre’ (i.e. the form) of his work is the one that everyone uses: ‘thenke nouhte to straungely at my penne / In this metre for yow lyste to procede, / Men vsen yt; therfore on hit take hede’ [don’t be surprised that my pen prefers to write for you in this form, everyone uses it, therefore pay attention to it] (Babees Book, 40-42).
Rhyme royal doesn’t really die off and remains associated with serious subjects and high style into the sixteenth century. Puttenham in his Arte of English Poesie (1589) calls it ‘chief of our ancient proporcions’ used for matters which are ‘historical’ or ‘grave’. George Gascoigne calls it ‘a royal kind of verse, serving best for grave discourses’ in his Certayne Notes of Instruction concerning the Making of Verse or Ryme in English (1575). But it does seem to go out of fashion somewhat, or at least become so capable of degradation that it can be used satirically. The Tudor poet John Skelton, in his morality play Magnificence (printed c. 1533), uses variations of rhyme royal, the courtly stanza form par excellence, to indicate how some of his vice characters counterfeit courtly sophistication.
The character Clokyd Colusyon (whom John Scattergood identifies as representing ‘underhand plotting’) gives his soliloquy in stanzas with the rhyme royal rhyme-scheme. This shows how deceiving, and how potentially dangerous, this character is. He can nearly imitate this courtly rhyme-scheme perfectly, though you could argue that his irregular length lines would give him away. A second character, Crafty Conveyaunce (‘crafty carrying off’) uses a similar stanza. To trick people at court means attempting to imitate courtly rhyme royal. Here’s an example of Clokyd Coluyson’s verse:
Double delynge and I be all one;
Craftynge and hartynge contryved is by me;
I can dyssemble; I can bothe laughe and grone;
Playne delynge and I can never agre.
But dyvysyon, dyssencyon, dyrysyon – these thre
And I, am counterfet of one mynde and thought,
By the menys of myschyef to bryng all thynges to nought.
[Double-dealing and I are one and the same; I contrive artful dealing and trickery; I can dissemble; I can both laugh and groan; Plain Dealing and I can never agree. But Division, Dissension, Derision – these three and I are deceitful, of one mind and thought, intent by means of mischief to bring everything to nothing.]
Counterfet Countenaunce (whom Scattergood identifies as ‘both false appearance and simulated restraint’) gives his monologue next in a seven-line stanza on only one rhyme-sound. It’s like a rhyme royal stanza stuck on just one rhyme. He himself calls this form ‘bastarde ryme, after the dogrell gyse’, doggerel because of its varying line length. This is rhyme royal degraded and done on the cheap, without the rhyme-patterns that define the original form. Here’s an example:
For Counterfet Countenaunce knowen am I:
This worlde is full of my foly.
I set not by hym a fly
That can not counterfet a lye,
Swere and stare, and byde therby,
And countenaunce it clenly,
And defende it manerly.
[Because I’m known as False Appearance: This world is full of my folly. I count as nothing he who cannot counterfeit a lie, swear blind and not blink, and stick by it, and unfalteringly countenance it and defend it decently.]
Courtly Abusyon (whom Scattergood defines as ‘perversion of fashionable, high-style, noble behaviour’) is next to speak his monologue. He uses the rhyme royal rhyme-scheme but in the short lines which were fashionable in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth century. This is minimalist rhyme royal, lacking the authentic dignity of the longer lines. Here’s an example:
My heyre bussheth
My robe russheth
Me seme I flye;
I am so lyght
To daunce delyght;
[My hair is so pleasantly bushy, my robe sways so dashingly;
I feel like I’m flying; I am so nimble to dance with delight;]
The final vice, Fancy (representing ‘whimsy, capriciousness’), speaks in short-line mono-rhymed quatrains: he can’t even manage an attempt at rhyme royal (which is significant in itself). Skelton doesn’t treat rhyme royal with respect, but rather degrades it to show the nature of each of his vice characters.