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As with most of Emily Dickinson's poetry, the poem "Because I could not stop for death" does contain a discernible rhyme scheme. This particular scheme is best described as ABCB: a set of four line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines rhyme.
This rhyme is not perfect; in fact, only the first and fifth stanzas rhyme in the expected manner, with the second, third, fourth and sixth stanzas employ a near or slight rhyme. This means that the rhyme is not perfect, but close enough. An example would be the lines in the fourth stanza which end in "chill" and "tulle". While these words do not exactly rhyme in American English, the similarity in the 'l' sounds carry the rhyme. In British English (BE) the rhyme is clearer: chill [click BE pronunciation]; tulle [click BE pronunciation].
The rhyme scheme in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death” is ABCB. Nevertheless, this American poet did take liberties with this model and doesn’t strictly observe exact rhyme in this poem.
The poem deals with the subject that death is in control so-to-speak when it comes to our lives. We have plans, aspirations, agendas, and such, and we want to continue on with really nothing getting in our way. However, Death (personified) is a tyrant in a way. It does not care about our concerns and promotes its own agenda, despite our best efforts to ultimately thwart it.
“Because I could not stop for Death” consists of six stanzas, each having four lines. The first stanza observes the ABCB rhyme scheme in a strict manner. Line two rhymes with line four exactly, with the words “me” and “Immortality”.
Stanza number two plays more loosely with the rhyme. In line two of this stanza, the last word is “away”. In line four of this stanza the last word is “Civility”, almost prompting the reader to modify the pronunciation to say “Civilitay” to keep a more strict rhyme because of the precedent set in the first stanza.
Stanza number three doesn’t really adhere to the ABCB rhyme scheme. It is a variation. Variation is used to great effect in formal poetry. It jars the readers “reading” in a sense. It breaks what can sometimes be a monotony to regular, metrical, rhyming poetry. It prevents a reader from falling into a type of trance, a slave to the meter, rhythm, and rhyme that embodies the poem.
The reader can become bored or indifferent as a poem can sometimes plod along in this manner; the reader ends up concentrating on the pull of the musicality of the poem and doesn’t ponder the actual meaning of the poem.
Try reading a long poem that observes strict meter and rhyme and see what can sometimes happen. As a result, variation is an excellent tool when use judiciously in formal poetry. The end word in line two of this stanza is “Ring”. The end word in line four of this stanza is “Sun”. No rhyme here. So, the rhyme scheme of stanza three is ABCD.
The last three stanzas revert to the rhyme scheme of the first two stanzas. Again, it is not strict rhyme all the time. Stanza number four does not adhere to exact rhyme with the words “chill” and “Tulle”. There is an inferred rhyme here – a loose rhyme.
Stanza number five has precise rhyme – the same two words “Ground”. Stanza number six has a loose rhyme again with the words “Day” and “Eternity”. Once again, this is almost prompting the reader to modify the pronunciation to say “Eternitay”.
The type of rhyme referred to above can also be called approximate rhyme, slant rhyme, or half rhyme. All these terms mean basically the same thing: the words are close to a perfect rhyme, but off by a little.
This use of slant rhyme is one of the things that makes Emily’s poetry special. It was much less common in her day than it is now, when most poetry followed more exact rules about form and meter. Obviously, she was not concerned with writing for the purpose of gaining fame or admiration, because many of her poems contain this kind of rhyme. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that she did not publish her poetry in her lifetime.
Although it may seem a bit unusual at first to encounter this kind of rhyme, a reader can quickly get accustomed to it. Anybody who sat down and read a handful of Dickinson’s short poems in one sitting would probably stop thinking that these rhymes sound any different than an exact rhyme.
Although some people may consider a poet’s use of slant rhyme to be a drawback or an indication of lesser skill, one must remember that the paramount concern of any poet is make their point as powerfully as possible. Sometimes it is not possible to find exact rhymes to convey a thought or emotion. We will never know how many poets have decided to discard an idea because they couldn’t find the rhyme they wanted. Dickinson, on the other hand, had a much richer store of words at her disposal, since she was such a master of the slant rhyme.
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