Dante’s terza rima is one of the supreme metrical inventions in the history of poetry. But in spite of several, if not very numerous, attempts, the metre has never been acclimatised in English.
- Laurence Binyon ‘Terza Rima in English Poetry’ English, 1940
[I am commissioned to write a longish article on terza rima for a new reference book called A Companion to Poetic Genre - the deadline approaches so that has been the work for today. Not finished yet, of course - only about half way through.
The piece begins with definitions, as it has to, and it moves on to Dante and the various translations available, some in terza rima, some in plain tercets, some colloquial, some prose - but the piece is not on Dante but on terza rima. So this is how the argument goes for now. ]
The one thing everybody knows about terza rima is that it was first used by Dante for the Commedia, invented by him for the purpose. The second is that there is a paucity of rhyme in English which is the reason it has not been much used by English language writers...
...The cornerstone of the argument [against rhyme] is that English is not a properly inflected language so the regularity of verb and noun endings deprives the poet of a wealth of possibilities. But inflection rhymes are thought to be rather cheap in many languages. In Hungarian, for instance, they are called ragrím, and mostly disdained by serious poets. It is as if a serious English language poet were proposing to make substantial use of rhymes ending –ation, or –ness, the first resort of the vocabulary-poor who need a bit of bling to make it swing.
A greater problem is the large range of English vowel sounds. Our five written vowels resolve, according to The International Phonetic Alphabet, into thirteen distinct vowel sounds, to which should be added up to twelve dipthongs. That is without the regional variations. (It’s not surprising that foreign speakers of English are more easily given away by their vowels than by their consonants.)
But the problem is not insurmountable, because various departures from true and full rhyme are permitted, eye-rhyme among them, where it is the spelling rather than the sound that does the rhyming work. A number of these were full rhymes once. But we may allow ourselves greater or lesser consonantal variations, accentual variations, and licences of many kinds. We might even think full rhymes a little childish, or a little too insistent.
Milton, in his famous preface to Paradise Lost, said:
The Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter.
No doubt he is right in that rhyme is absolutely not a necessity in poetry, not even as adjunct or ornament, however, a defence of it might be made along lines less traditional, not as adjunct or ornament, but as structure. In this defence the issue of ornamentation is unimportant.
This is not the place [meaning such a piece] to develop such an argument, but since terza rima inevitably involves rhyme in its rima, a very brief attempt might be made. The defence would argue not by way of the final product but by way of process and the relationship between the user of language and language itself.
The proposer might argue that the act of finding rhyme is a different sort of negotiation from employing metre or, in fact, writing free verse. Finding rhyme is the constant deflecting of some possible intention. The poet may wish to say something then seek the words in which to say it, but rhyme constrains the process. Intention is necessarily modified. Out of that modification arise various new active possibilities. Language itself is more active as a result: its accidents, its demands, cannot be ignored or overridden. Thought must move differently and take a less directive role.
Since language in poetry is of primary importance – it is interesting how translations of Dante that depart from terza rima shift the reader ever further from verse as verse and closer to story as story, a story in which form plays a less active part – it might be argued that the active, volatile, aspects of language as sound beyond instrumental meaning are of particular interest.
Whether poetry is capable of being paraphrased (rather than summarised) or not is a moot question, but it could be argued that the effect of shifting Dante from terza rima into blank verse is to rewrite the poem as paraphrase with ornamental features, that is to say with local effects that heighten descriptions and moods. The story then is the real thing: its poetic qualities are the adjunct (the Sinclair translation is, in fact, prose).
The argument against rhyme also turns on the dangers of doggerel and cliché. Rhyming moon with June is certainly a cliché given the appropriate cliché context, but the art of rhyming – and English poetry is full of wonderful poems that do employ rhyme – lies in avoiding cliché, which is, essentially, easy closure.
The last major strand of the argument is based on the old antithesis between the modern as in Modernism and the traditional as in everything else. After over a hundred years of Modernism it may be the case that a device like rhyme need not insist on some pre-lapsarian, conservative caricature of tradition, but that it may take full cognizance of all that has happened and begin to define its function according to different principles.
That is as far as the defence of rhyme need go for our purposes here, but it I hope it might have been useful to sketch out a territory if only because, while it makes perfect sense to speak of an unrhymed sonnet, it makes no sense at all to speak of unrhymed terza rima.
[Then I look at Chaucer and Wyatt and will go on to Milton and Shelley etc, through to Walcott's Omeros, which employs terza rima in a generally loose but highly effective fashion.]