Rhyme Schemes, Medieval Lyrics and the Development of the Sonnet
Poets count rhyme by assigning rhyme sounds letters of the alphabet based on the order of a rhyme's first appearance. The first rhyme in a poem is "a," the second "b," etc. Chaucer's most common verse rhyme scheme in the Canterbury Tales, the rhyming couplet, would be described as "aa, bb, cc, dd" because it rarely repeats a rhyme due to the pressures on the poet to keep the narrative moving. Shorter lyrics tend to use rhyme repetition to sonically link words, so that when rhymes repeat in a quatrain, for instance, poets have options like "abab," or "abba" (creating an "internal couplet" with the "bb" rhyme). Rhymes also can link stanzas together in the "concatenated" or Spensarian sonnet, which rhymes "abab bcbc cdcd ee," creating internal couplets at stanza boundaries, as well as ending with the traditional English sonnet's couplet.
"Gentilesse" is a ballade, a stanzaic French form rhyming "ABABBCC" and usually having as its topic a lover's complaint, or moral or political advice. In Chaucer's hands this form is capable of ironic humor ("To Adam Scryvyn," "Complaint to His Purse") as well as sophisticated social commentary ("Gentilesse" and "Truth"). When an "Envoy" is attached, as in the case of "Truth," the poem's message becomes directed to a particular dedicatee (e.g., Sir Philip de la Vache, or Henry IV in the case of "Complaint to His Purse") but the manuscript audience continues to overhear and appreciate the poet's more general message with the added treat of knowing for certain the intended recipient of its hidden messages. In the case of Wyatt, Surrey, and later lyric poets, the dedicatee of the poem often was intentionally obscured by the use of codes and symbols for political reasons (e.g., Anne Boleyn becomes the "hind" or female deer who belongs to "Caesar" or Henry VIII and is therefore "dangerous to hold"; see "Whoso List to Hunt" on p. 441). Hiding the poem's dedicatee was the more ancient practice, found in classical times in the poems of Sappho and Catullus, and in medieval times used by the troubadors and trobaritz who named their beloveds by using "senhals" or pen names like "Tristan" or "Floris," probably borrowing the practice from Arab writers.
More of the poem's "hidden" meaning is contained in its sound, the rhyme scheme, which links words especially at the ends of lines. The basic reason to use rhyme is that of your childhood "ABC" rhyme--mnemonic assistance. The rhymed words linger in the readers' memories a little longer than the rest, becoming associated in a deeper structure of meaning. "Internal rhyme" also abounds with potential mnemonic significance, as in the fourth line's "Vertu to sue" [to seek moral strength], as well as alliteration, the basic musical device of Old English (e.g., "first fader and finder"--which sets off "gentilesse" by sudden contrast).
|Gentilesse||(A rough prose translation)|
|The firste fader and findere of gentilesse,||A||If any man wishes to be "gentil," he must follow the path|
|What man desireth gentil for to be||B||of Jesus, who first discovered and gave us "gentilesse,"|
|Moste folwe his traas, and ale his wittes dresse||A||and he must focus his mind to seek moral strength and|
|Vertu to sue, and vices for to flee:||B||flee vices. Because we should give social honor to those with|
|For unto vertu longeth dignitee,||B||moral strength, rather than assuming those with high status|
|And naught the revers, saufly dar I deeme,||C||are virtuous, it's safe to say,|
|Al were he mitre, crowne, or diademe.||C||no matter whether they're kings, emperors, or popes.|
|This firste stok was ground of rightwisnesse,||Jesus founded right behavior, being|
|Trewe of his word, sobre, pitous, and free,||truthful, self-controled, merciful and generous,|
|Clene of his gost, and loved bisinese||spiritually pure, and energetic in good deeds to|
|Against the vice of slouthe, in honestee;||shun sloth, truely;|
|And but his heir love vertu as dide he,||but unless one's heir loves "vertu" as Jesus did,|
|He is nat gentil, though he riche seeme,||that heir is not "gentil," although he seems to have high status,|
|Al were he mitre, crowne, or diademe.||no matter whether he's a king, emperor, or pope.|
|Vice may wel be heir to old richesse,||Viscious men can inherit ancient wealth,|
|But ther may no man, as ye may wel see,||but no man may, as you can plainly see,|
|Biquethe his heir his vertuous noblesse:||give his heir his own noble virtue:|
|That is appropred unto no degree||that is given to no group of whatever their social status|
|But to the firste fader in majestee,||but rather is given to Jesus in Heaven,|
|That maketh his heir him that wol him queme,||who makes those his spiritual heirs as it pleases him,|
|Al were he mitre, crowne, or diademe.||no matter whether they are kings, emperors, or popes.|
Can you see how an English poet might combine a ballade stanza with the borrowed Italian or Petrarchan sonnet to create a new form of the sonnet stanza
|ballade stanza.||sonnet (Italian or "Petrarchan")||sonnet (English or "Shakespearian")|
|A||A ["octave" or 8-line group sets out the poet's problem]||A [1st "quatrain" or 4-line group]|
|B||A||C [2nd quatrain]|
|C ["sestet" or 6-line group resolves it]||E [3rd quatrain]|
How might the repetition of rhyme words, especially the unexpected repetition in couplets formed when the alternating rhyme switches, affect the way the mind juxtaposes those rhymed words. In Chaucer's "Gentilesse," for instance, notice how the red rhymes tend to contain major moral qualities, and the repetition of the last line bears down on the higher status readers with increasing force each time it reappears. What does it imply about their heirs?
To see the sonnet grow as Chaucer, Wyatt, and Surrey learn from Petrarch and create their own English variants on the form, see Petrarch / (Chaucer) / Wyatt / Surrey: Invention of the Sonnet.
Syllabus View of English 211
Chronological View of English 211
Back to English 211 home page
Syllabus View of English 330
Chronological View of English 330
Back to English 330 home page