Hymns are chimerical critters. Their bodies are made of poetry, and their breath is music. The natural ligature of these beasts is rhyme. But sweet rhyme has fallen on strange times in both poetry and music. In poetry, rhyme is terribly out of fashion. It has come to serve more as a rhetorical marker of irony than in its original capacities as mnemonic device and auditory delight. In music, rhyme is applied sloppily in general usage, while undergoing a curious renaissance in some parts of hip-hop. For most people, rhyme immediately connotes childishness. If most of us have left the real use of rhyme in the nursery, any rhyme could drag us all back there. It is conceivable that Praise Him above, ye heav'nly host/Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost falls on the American ear no differently than Mr. Sendak's Whoopee once, whoopee twice/Whoopee, chicken soup with rice. If rhyme has come to seem so childish, is it time to give it up in hymns?
Rhyme and Hymns
In our hymns, baby Jesus and his blessed mother are mild, undefiled, or handily contrasted with whatever feature of Christmas may be cast as wild. Love comes from above and Jesus frees us. Holy and lowly end up partners; so do blood and flood; heard and Word and (well, OK) Lord, which leads to sword, accord, afford, and many other things that would never get said (much less sung) outside of church.
Good comes of this, perhaps most of all that rhyme keeps nouns in our hymns. Hymns will never become uselessly abstract as long as wise rhymes with eyes. On the other hand, one wonders how Anglosphere piety might look if Spirit rhymed with humility, or hope with Law, or Baptism with zeal. And how much of Thron/Sohn and -ius -i -ium -ii -io have we received without knowing it? The shape rhyme makes in our personal devotion by way of hymns is the proof that language has meaning. When rhymes are expected, sense can't be neglected; a failure to nail your point will get rejected. For English-speaking Christians, hymns have made being saved from the grave like putting on socks in the morning. We could do worse.
Rhyme leads to brilliance. A hymnwriter or translator jots down a placeholder verse ending in flowed, and suddenly Cana has wine in streams that nature ne'er bestowed. But like all high yield investments, rhyme carries high risk. The price of Sweet injuries/Yet they at these/Themselves displease is a world of doggerel brought with hopeful smiles to church musicians. We must either hurt the feelings of the aspiring hymnwriter, or sing his song in public worship with the same tenderness that serves Christmas dinner on a loving first grader's Sharpie-decorated plates.
Rhyme and Poetry
The menace of failed rhymes shares blame with perceived childishness for driving rhyme out of literary poetry. “[M]y heart sometimes sinks when I scan the righthand margin of a poem and see a string of rhymes,” wrote Ligaya Mishan in the New Yorker (Oct. 23, 2009). “There’s such a high potential for disaster.” In 2014, the New Yorker published three poems that employed strict end-rhymes: a bona fide piece from Clive James; a humorous one from Ian Frazier in which rhyme clearly served the poem's wry tone; and one from Leonard Cohen. Mr. Cohen is properly a songwriter, and as such is allowed and even encouraged to rhyme. Songs (inclusive of hymns) get a much larger pass on recycling rhymes than literary poems do. A rhyme may be threadbare or trite to the verge of silliness, but we can't get over the fact that it sounds nice when we sing it. We like rhymes in the way we like a girl in an empire waist dress, or a grandma with flowers in her hair. Pretty is pretty, and in song, rhyme is just the pretty we're listening for. So song remains the refuge of the serious rhyme, if she is to have a refuge.
Nevertheless, rhyme is definitely option rather than law among contemporary popular songwriters. Adele's use of rhyme is spotty, and not very imaginative. Year/dear, mind/behind, now/how, and similar incidental pairs show up in an auxiliary capacity in her lyrics, but rhyme is no driving force in her songs' structure. Pop songwriting oligarchs Max Martin, Stargate, Dr. Luke, and Ester Dean treat rhyme like an old t-shirt: sometimes good enough for traditional use, sometimes repurposed to clean up a mess, often wholly forgotten, and always in bad shape in any given song. What the ear might identify as rhyme in many contemporary songs is mostly loose assonance.
Skaldic poet Egill Skallagrimson would not approve. Strict end-rhyme saved his life when he debuted it for an angry king in 10th century Iceland. Power like this should not be applied carelessly. Edgar Allen Poe, in his forceful argument for precision in poetry “The Rationale of Verse”, maintains that strong rhyme is poetically unavoidable, owing to its value for “defining lines to the ear” (emphasis original). He places rhyme even more distantly in the history of poetry, asserting that the occasional internal use of rhyme may be observed in Aristophanes' Clouds and among the Roman poets. English teachers must teach us that poems don't need to rhyme not only because the first poems we ourselves learned did rhyme, but also because of the long historical testimony to the contrary.
Rhyme and Hip-Hop
But has rhyme's long reign worn out its poetic usefulness, causing it to strike contemporary ears as the mark of a joke? Strangely, today's most committed secular users of rhyme employ it toward absolutely serious ends. Hip-hop artist Chancelor Bennet, known as Chance the Rapper, disclosed good-naturedly on NPR's comedy gameshow “Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me” (Aug. 1 2015) that the rhyme of which he is most proud is his pairing of growth spurt with tippy-toes hurt. But there is no question among either mainstream critics or fans that hip-hop is a genre of music whose sobriety is unassailable. This is despite the fact that one of its defining features is the fashioning of rhymes that Poe, at least, would have considered far-fetched.
Hip-hop has a champion scholar in Baba Brinkman, a Canadian rapper who studies the history of rhyme. In a TEDx Talk, Brinkman argues that hip-hop has brought innovation to rhyme by its unprecedented use of multi-syllabic and multi-word rhymes in serious contexts. He offers the following Eminem lyrics as an example:
I feel like I'm walkin' a tight rope without a circus net
Poppin' Percocet, I'm a nervous wreck
I deserve respect but I work a sweat for this worthless check
I'm about to burst this TEC at somebody to reverse this debt
Whether such work would have spared Eminem the wrath of Eric Bloodaxe is unclear. But Brinkman contends that from Chaucer to the present day, no one has employed sustained patterns of hip-hop style “multi-rhymes” as carriers of a serious message. He dismisses examples of complex rhyme from Samuel Butler, Lord Byron, and J. R. R. Tolkien as comic (hobbits, arguably, are a victim of profiling here, as Brinkman considers them personally unserious). We might add the vaudeville classic “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay,” or patter songs such as “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” to the evidence that multi-rhymes, in or out of music, are intrinsically funny. Hip-hop audiences consider multi-rhymes not only acceptable, but the appropriate vehicle of rappers' weighty subject matter.
Back to the Hymnal
But we were talking about hymns. The church takes them seriously both as offerings to God Almighty, and as being more catechetically influential than confirmation classes, Bible studies, and sermons combined. Does the state of rhyme in the world have anything to say to us? Should we stay away from rigid rhyme so as not to bring its felt silliness into the house of God? Alternatively, should hymnwriters learn the art of multirhyming to gain access to its contemporary rhetorical power?
Our hymnals demonstrate that hymnody is already doing a bit of both in its own way. “Christ, Mighty Savior,” first published in English translation in 1982 from a 7th c. Latin hymn, appears in Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, and other hymnals. It contains not one end-rhyme. Looser rhyme schemes like those we see in pop music are at work in the ecumenically sung “I Want To Walk As a Child Of the Light”, and the Lutheran favorite “Jesus Has Come and Brings Pleasure Eternal.” While hymn-singers (or at least hymn publishers) still strongly favor strict end-rhymes, they are willing to admit exceptions.
What about multirhymes? An accident of hymnwriting is that the language of theology gets technical. The use of dogmatic terms in hymns mitigates concerns about childishness; moreover, anyone who wants to end a verse with righteousness is driven toward choices like glorious dress or nothing less. Edward Perronet's beloved “All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name” certainly won over singers with its rhyme lineup including prostrate fall, altar call, and the gall, and terrestrial ball. Perhaps Brinkman would give formulations like these honorable mention in his catalog of serious multirhymes. We might also cite “Sent Forth By God's Blessing,” “One Thing's Needful,” or even Ash Wednesday's “Savior, When In Dust To Thee” as having pattery feels in their combinations of rhyme and meter, while still bearing reverence appropriate for public worship.
Rhyme and Reason
Hymns are their own genre. This is evident even within church music: hymns differ in substance, function, and form from Psalms, canticles, and praise and worship songs. Hymnody is broad enough to allow the kind of rule-breaking all art requires. At the same time, the practical demands upon hymns protect the genre from degenerating into piles of denatured artistry unrecognizable to anyone but some elite class of hymnwriters. Even picky singers of hymns are willing to tell all the Truth in slant rhyme if it's expertly written and musically set.
If the world's literati eschew rhyme for their own poems while ascribing absolute gravity to some of the most technically remote rhymes ever contrived, rhyme itself remains to be judged on its own merits. The church should feel no qualms about sending forth the sturdy hymns of old, and adding to their number in like fashion. Rhyme, like our Lord, always welcomes the young. But the utility of ghost to the hymnwriter also keeps highfalutin grownups more honest about the third person of the Trinity than we might otherwise be. Carefully practiced, rhyme challenges anyone willing to hear it out.
Hymnwriter Martin Luther argued for the ministerial rather than magisterial use of reason in theology. While Christians do not all agree with this view of reason, our various hymnals indicate that everybody seems happy enough with the ministerial rather than magisterial use of rhyme. Such a pleasing point of agreement may be something about which the pilgrim throng can rejoice with one . . . well, take your pick.
Rebekah Curtis has written for Touchstone, Modern Reformation, and Salvo.