William Blake
December 27, 2004 4:35 AM   Subscribe


Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

How did Blake get away with this rhyme? [MI]

I've seen other examples of dodgy rhymes like this - rhyming 'prove' with 'love', for example. Could someone with more knowledge of English versification than I have please explain why this is allowed?
posted by altolinguistic to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Poetic License?
posted by christin at 4:57 AM on December 27, 2004

It's likely just pronunciation differences between late-18th century (The Tyger was first published in Songs of Experience in 1794) and 21st century. It happened a couple hundred years earlier, but the great vowel shift might have had some impact.

(On preview, Poetic license is a good explanation, too)
posted by Plutor at 4:58 AM on December 27, 2004

Some of the "dodgy" rhymes actually did rhyme at the time (e.g. Elizabethan poets, thus explaining some of Shakespeare's more curious rhymes) and others (such as "Tyger") only had similar sounds (an oblique rhyme). It is important to remember that traditional English versification, despite the importance awarded rhyming in popular forms such as the limerick and the sonnet, places more importance on stressed and non-stressed syllables and the amount of syllables (the meter). This meter has three feet (two syllables) and one half-foot, except for the last line, which is a tetrameter (four feet). It is also (semi-)trochaic (except for the last line) and has a structure of rhyming couplets (aabb).

I suppose I could just have told you that rhymes don't have to be assonant. There's a Wikipedia article on rhyme.

Apologies for any errors.
posted by Gnatcho at 5:07 AM on December 27, 2004

I meant that the last line is fully trochaic.
posted by Gnatcho at 5:15 AM on December 27, 2004

Don't miss that eye rhymes with thy...
posted by SNACKeR at 5:15 AM on December 27, 2004

prove and love are more like rhymes if you pronounce them in modern english accents than american, so 400 years ago they may well have actually audially mirrored each other.

There is also something in poetry about purposeful imperfections which sort of snag the reader. A "feminine ending" on an iambic pentameter is a common one, which is an 11th unstressed syllable (da-DA, da-DA, da-DA, da-DA, da-DA-da), which gives the line a soft closing, and throws off the rhythm which draws focus. One could claim that in a poem like 'tyger' which follows a pretty strict meter and rhyme scheme, having one word to throw someone off will draw focus toward that word (symmetry), which may be purposeful.
posted by mdn at 6:17 AM on December 27, 2004

The Great Vowel Shift.

So, it rhymed back then.
posted by armoured-ant at 6:27 AM on December 27, 2004

Read some Emily Dickinson. She uses a lot of slant rhyme. Personally, it just irritates me.
posted by driveler at 7:00 AM on December 27, 2004

Actually, Blake died in 1827, a few years before Dickinson was born. By then it seems that the great vowel shift had already occured. I think Blake was intentionally using slant rhyme.
posted by driveler at 7:13 AM on December 27, 2004

Also known as half-rhyme or imperfect rhyme. Perfectly acceptable, and can be quite effective at calling attention to that point in the poem, and/or at making the reader's "ear" hurt. Best used when paired with dissonant, awkward or painful content.
posted by grateful at 7:33 AM on December 27, 2004

There's also eye rhyme, which may be intentional or the result of vowel shift...
posted by googly at 7:44 AM on December 27, 2004

I second what grateful and drivler said. Poetry frequently breaks with metric and rhymed norms for emphasis, or just variety. This is particularly true of longer poems, where perfect meter and rhyme could be monotonous, or even sound comical. It's worth noting that the word that breaks the rhyme scheme is "symmetry". It's both ironic, and slightly unexpected.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:50 AM on December 27, 2004

I always thought that one of the many ways Art can work is by doing everything right except for one thing. Come to think of it, I remember that lesson in high school being taight with this poem as an example of that.

(Maybe I'm thinking about advertising. Damn.) Still. Grateful's right, I think. The fact that the rhyme is not-quite-right only serves to draw your attention to the point he's trying to make.

I'd bet that that rhyme, while closer to true, still didn't completely signify, even 250 years ago.
posted by chicobangs at 7:51 AM on December 27, 2004

"Because he's William Blake" is the best answer that comes to mind.
posted by willpie at 8:16 AM on December 27, 2004

Also, contrast the poem with its Songs of Innocence partner "The Lamb" ("Little Lamb who made thee?"), which, unlike the Tyger, offers a simple answer to a simple question and phrases it in regular, uncomplicated rhyme, almost doggerel. It's a comforting message: a nice god makes nice things. But "The Tyger" leaves its questions unanswered. Blake complicates the issue by wondering how such a nice god could make such a horrible beast, and the slant rhyme mirrors this theme of creation gone astray.

Or Blake just got lazy.
posted by bibliowench at 9:11 AM on December 27, 2004

Can I add a related question here? If one is reading that poem aloud, how should one pronounce "symmetry"? I've heard people pronounce it "wrong" in order to make it actually rhyme with "eye" ("symme-TRY" instead of "symme-TREE").
posted by dnash at 9:15 AM on December 27, 2004

I like bibliowench's (first) answer.
posted by rushmc at 9:27 AM on December 27, 2004

I've always said symme-TRY, since it's easier on my ears than pronouncing "eye" "ee".

On a related (religiously disturbing) note, in The Second Coming by Yeats,

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer

gyre = jeer? jer? jy-er?
posted by Hildago at 10:08 AM on December 27, 2004

Assuming pronunciation hasn't changed over time, you should pronounce it correctly. Hidlago - The discomfort that you're experiencing is intentional.

(I have pronounced it symme-TRY, with my tounge firmly implanted in my cheek.)
posted by grateful at 10:18 AM on December 27, 2004

Hildago: I've always heard it as gyre=ji(long i)-er, both here and in Jabberwocky.
posted by bibliowench at 10:27 AM on December 27, 2004

oh. i always assumed it was a hard g, but i just looked in the dictionary and you're right - i've been hearing that wrong in my heard for years....
posted by andrew cooke at 10:47 AM on December 27, 2004

I thought "gyre" was pronounced with a hard G because it's what Carroll himself said in his notes on the poem (which I'm having trouble finding, but I know they exist someplace).
posted by wanderingmind at 11:48 AM on December 27, 2004

The late great Professor Eric Laithwaite explained Jabberwocky in terms of engineering in a Royal Society Christmas lecture in the late 70s/early 80s - gyre comes from gyroscope, and a gimble ring is the ring that runs around the equator of the gyroscope. Despite this ringing in my memory, I too pronounce gyre (to rhyme with fire, and with an assonance with "widening") with a hard 'g'. It seems more anglo-saxon that way.
posted by Grangousier at 11:50 AM on December 27, 2004

Aha - found it:

The new words, in the poem "Jabberwocky", have given rise to some differences of opinion as to their pronunciation: so it may be well to give instructions on that point also. Pronounce "slithy" as if it were the two words "sly, the": make the "g" hard in "gyre" and "gimble": and pronounce "rath" to rhyme with "bath".
--Preface to Through The Looking Glass

posted by wanderingmind at 11:51 AM on December 27, 2004

Blake was using slant rhyme. The word did not rhyme with symmetry. Blake was not obsessive about rhyme.

And, what bibliowench said about making the sound a little disjunctive to reflect the uncomfortable subject matter.

The widening gyre, or gyring and gimbeling in the wabe, pronounced "jeer" as in "jeer at someone"? The second is definitely wrong, as wanderingmind cleverly shows. As for the first, I have only ever heard "jire" (to rhyme with "fire") from all sorts of people, including IIRC Seamus Heaney. There are some recordings of Yeats reading his own work, but I couldn't find any on the internets.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:10 PM on December 27, 2004

Dang, you're right. [returns English degrees, sees immediate increase in earning potential]. It's hard to argue with a guy who makes up his own words. Hard g-gyre does sound better with gimble though.
posted by bibliowench at 12:16 PM on December 27, 2004

dnash, you should read "symmetry" in the normal way. As folks have said above, rhyme does not have to be perfect, and it's only a hang-up on the part of the reader that insists that it be perfect. And (SNACKeR is right on--the rhyme is with "thy"--it's a cool effect.)

T.S. Eliot has a great essay called "On Verse Libre" (free verse) in which he talks about exactly this: the way that art often works by flirting with 'proper' forms, and the way in which the best art, at its moments of highest intensity, breaks the rules. He has some great examples of great lines of poetry that have been ruined by perfect meter. The incantatory power of this quatrain, for example, would probably be diminished if all four lines were in perfect A/B/A/B rhyme with similar meter.

Rhyme is a mode of expression, not just a constraint. So, for example, in "The Lamb," the first stanza rhymes AA/BB/CC/DD/AA, while the second rhymes AA/BCD/DCB/AA--the first stanza is more conventional, while the second is a little heightened, with the chiasmic rhyme scheme showing the self-reflexive view the child is taking of the lamb. And the 'heightened' feeling is increaseed because the poem is ironic: it's about the dangers of religious indoctrination (to which Blake was very opposed) and underlying it is the question about the fate of the lamb--destined to be sheared for his "wooly, bright" coat or sent to the slaughter? So the line, "Little Lamb, God bless thee!" with its double rhyme has an added impact at the end of the mirrored scheme.

So it's not that Blake was getting away from anything; the poem uses the irregular rhyme to achieve a certain effect.

Also on preview: I remember reading in Richard Ellmann's biography that Yeats pronounced "gyre" with a hard G. I think Helen Vendler said this too at one point.
posted by josh at 12:34 PM on December 27, 2004

Ha, not getting away from--getting away with.
posted by josh at 12:42 PM on December 27, 2004

Lovecraft wrote an essay on this topic, though his prose style can be hard to trudge through when he's not going on about unspeakable elder monstrosities.

And I'm glad to hear I've been reading Jabberwocky correctly all this time.
posted by squidlarkin at 1:01 PM on December 27, 2004

bibliowench is unspeakably correct on this matter. innocence and experience were counterpoints, often matched poem for poem. Clearly, the best way to pronounce is while drunk, with a drunk audience, in a drunk universe. There are a couple, according to multiple worlds theory - that's why Blake is often described as a visionary.
posted by Sparx at 9:00 PM on December 27, 2004

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