Elements of Poetry: Rhymes & Sounds

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  • 0:02 More Than Rhymes
  • 0:43 Acoustics
  • 2:06 How Syllables Work
  • 3:04 Stressed & Unstressed…
  • 4:09 Acoustic Analysis
  • 5:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Many poems rhyme, but there is often more going on in terms of the sounds of the words than just what happens at the ends of the lines. This lesson explores some of the nuances of rhyme and sound in poetry.

More Than Rhymes

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick. Many people grow up hearing nursery rhymes and by the time they're in school, they have a pretty good ear for rhyming sounds. The perfect rhymes in these little verses are satisfying. 'Quick' rhymes neatly with 'stick', but it also has a sound relationship with the name 'Jack,' which functions to make the nursery rhyme even more memorable. The AP Literature curriculum asks students to become skilled and careful readers of poetry, and a big part of poetry is the sound of the words. So, let's take a closer listen to sound.


Acoustics refers to all the sounds in a poem. Rhyme is one common acoustic element, but there are many other ways that writers can connect words. Consonance is when two words end in the same consonant sound. In our nursery rhyme, 'Jack' and 'quick' have a relationship of consonance. In the same way, 'enough' and 'staff' have a consonant relationship even though the 'f' sounds at the ends of the words are made with different letters.

Another way to link words acoustically is through assonance, which is when two words have the same vowel sound. Words like 'Jack' and 'plan' or 'clean' and 'street' have a relationship of assonance. So, what's the big deal? Assonance and consonance are ways to connect words through sounds. The ear picks up on those connections, but it's not as strong as a rhyme.

Poem by by Emily Dickinson
I Like to Lap the Miles by Emily Dickenson

Emily Dickinson, in her poem I Like to See It Lap the Miles ends her lines with consonance rather than rhyme. She connects 'up' with 'step' and 'peer' with 'pare'. The overall effect of this weaker acoustic connection is to make the reader feel uneasy and confused. In fact, the whole poem is a riddle, so confusion is warranted! Dickinson uses her acoustic elements to accomplish this effect.

How Syllables Work

Every syllable in English has three places for sound. There's a spot for an initial consonant sound, a spot for a vowel sound, and a final spot for another consonant sound. If you add more sounds than that, you start a new syllable. Let's use the word 'sound' as an example. It begins with an initial 's' sound, it has the 'ou' vowel in the middle, and it ends with a final 'nd' consonant sound.

For two syllables to have a consonance relationship, they just need the final sounds to be the same. Assonance means that middle vowel is the same, and rhyme is consonance plus assonance with a different beginning! 'Sound' rhymes with 'mound' because they have the same vowel 'ou,' the same ending 'nd', and different beginnings. No wonder rhyme is more satisfying to the ear; it contains both consonance and assonance.

Stressed and Unstressed Syllables

There is another hitch though. For a rhyme to be exact, the rhyming syllables have to both be stressed. You see, in English, every syllable is either loud (stressed) or soft (unstressed). Take the name 'Elvis.' There are two syllables. The first one is stressed and the second one is unstressed. You can hear that when you say the name - Elvis. For something to rhyme with Elvis it would have to match with the first syllable, a word like 'pelvis'. If it matched the second syllable, the unstressed one, the rhyme won't sound quite right.

The name 'Elvis' doesn't exactly rhyme with the word 'this'. It's close, but the stresses don't line up. Here's another example, from a famous poem, 'When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.' Can you hear how that's a little awkward? Because the stresses don't match up, we call that anisobaric rhyme, meaning a rhyme of unequal pressures.

Acoustic Analysis

With these new tools in your tool belt, let's take a look at a full poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

'The courage that my mother had

Went with her, and is with her still:

Rock from New England quarried;

Now granite in a granite hill.

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