“I ate the plums that were in the cooler”: a post-it on the refrigerator door. But “I ate / the plums / that were in / the cooler”: the first stanza of William Carlos Williams’ poem It’s just to say, a poignant meditation on guilt, betrayal and a key text of the imagist movement. The poetic essence here seems to be in the eye of the beholder, but it never was, and, in her opening salvo, Rebecca M. Rush asserts of early modern poetry that “the rejection of rhyme n It’s not just a matter of personal taste or generic necessity, but an act of liberation that will resonate throughout England.
It’s a compelling read; Rush draws on a plethora of contemporary poetic textbooks, writers’ remarks in letters and poems on their own choices of poetic forms and on his own painstakingly microscopic readings. It strikingly links what appear to be trivial questions of literary form to some of the most important political-religious struggles of the time.
Key to his recognition of the meaning of rhyme is his appreciation of the period as an analogy – where divinity manifests in the diurnal: poets “strive to build bridges between spirit and world, verse and the universe ”. The music of the spheres, the creative harmony of God, can be seen in the harmony of his creation. For John Milton, the “immortal verse” will untie “all the chains that bind / The hidden soul of harmony”.
But it’s not as simple as a rhyme revealing a hidden celestial coordination. In fact, in the case of John Donne’s rhyming couplets, Rush suggests he revisits Chaucer’s iambic pentameter. Canterbury Tales, with its “happy, light and vulgar” accents. In the 1590s, the verse was associated with “unpretentious poetry and freedom of thought,” a world far removed from the complex rhymes of Edmund Spenser, which denote “voluntary surrender and mutual captivity” of lovers. Characteristically, it was Ben Jonson who reformed Donne, finding “a middle way between the libertinism of the poets of the Elizabethan verse and the slavery of the [Spenserian] sonneteers ”. Jonson’s “formal and constrained” country house poems appeal to aristocratic patrons rather than “Donne’s retrograde discourse among young men.”
Unsurprisingly, it is in Milton’s work that rhyme and prosody are most seriously balanced. It is perhaps ironic that during his days as a pamphleteer, when he defends freedom of conscience and religious freedom, Milton is drawn to the form of the Italian sonnet – more complex and constrained than its English offshoot. But later in his career, the rejection of rhyme is a decision consistent with his serious morals. In his head note to lost paradise, Milton thunders: the rhyme is “the invention of a barbaric age, to set off miserable matter and the lame meter”. Rush states that the royalist poets had embraced “the prerationalist charms of the rhyming chime”, so Milton had little choice but “to eliminate it altogether.”
Any account of modern poetry from Spenser’s early days to Milton that omits the era’s greatest poet and narrative sonneteer, Shakespeare, shoots itself in the foot, but what is here is a subtle, thoughtful, and well-substantiated account of the ideological implications of poetic form.
Peter J. Smith is Reader in Renaissance Literature at Nottingham Trent University.
The chains of rhyme: freedom and poetic form in early modern England
By Rebecca M. Rush
Princeton University Press, 304pp, £ 34.00
Posted on June 1, 2021