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What Are Rhyme Schemes?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated May 23, 2024
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Rhyme schemes are the arrangement of rhymed words within the stanza of a poem. The term can also apply to the pattern of rhymes in the words to a song. Particular schemes generally apply to a type of verse, such as the limerick or the sonnet. The exact scheme of an individual poem is identified by using letters of the alphabet to mark the lines that rhyme. An “abab” scheme would indicate that the final words rhyme of the first and third lines, as well as the second and fourth.

A stanza is two or more lines of poetry arranged together as a unit. It performs a function similar to that of the paragraph in other forms of writing. The stanza organizes the ideas contained within the poem into a logical progression. It represents the different steps within the poem that build to its conclusion. Unlike a paragraph, the length of a stanza is generally uniform throughout the poem.

Rhyme schemes come in many forms and vary in complexity. There is the limerick poem, which always consists of five lines rhyming aabba. A limerick usually has a bawdy theme — some traditionalists urge that it should also be in some manner obscene.

The English word “sonnet” is derived from the Provençal “sonet” and the Italian “sonetto,” both of which mean “little song.” It has come to generally mean a logically structured poem of 14 lines that follows a strict rhyme scheme. The English or Shakespearean sonnet is denoted by an abab, cdcd, efef, gg scheme. The gg represents a rhyming couplet, which consists of two lines and sums up the poem’s theme or point of view. There are different forms of sonnet that have developed in different countries throughout the world.

Most formal rhyme schemes are external. The rhyming occurs in the last syllable of the last word in a stanza line. There are also poems that use internal rhyming. Rhyme occurs in the first line of the first stanza and is repeated in the third and part of the fourth line. American poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe’s “Quoth the Raven” is considered a masterful use of internal rhyme.

Rhyme schemes were most important in early modern poetry and for use in sonnets. Much of modern poetry does not use traditional rhyming or uniform stanzas. A stanza may consist of as many lines as it takes the poet to express a particular idea. Some modern poets still use traditional forms but do so without rhyming. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda created his own loose variation of the sonnet form exclusively for his love poems.

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