For centuries, these guides have been met with distaste. But their roots are wholeheartedly democratic—and funby Harry Harris / April 24, 2020 / Leave a comment
In Tobias Wolff’s 2003 novel Old School, a group of arrogant literature students criticise Robert Frost, who is visiting their school to talk about poetry. One sums up his issues with Frost by saying: “I mean, he’s still using rhyme… Rhyme is bullshit. Rhyme says that everything works out in the end. All harmony and order. When I see a rhyme in a poem, I know I’m being lied to.”
Rhyme is one of the first ways we are introduced to language. There is evidence to suggest that it helps with language acquisition and other semantic development, and studies have also observed a link between rhyme and our aesthetic enjoyment of poetry. But among some literary circles, there is a snobbery about its use. Sceptics deride the use of rhyme as an artistic crutch, believing that it stands in way of achieving deeper, loftier literary aspirations. A common target of their ire is the rhyming dictionary—a handy manual full of avenues that poets of all abilities can run down. But while they may scoff, the long history of rhyming dictionaries shows their curious role in making poetry accessible to the masses.
Rhyming dictionaries have been around for millennia. The first is thought to be the Qieyun, a 601 AD Chinese rhyming dictionary that served as a guide to reading classical texts and aid composition. It would then take nearly 1000 years for the first Western rhyming dictionary to be introduced, a tome called the Manipulus Vocabulorum. It was written by English schoolteacher Peter Levins in 1570 as a reference for practicing poets. The introduction observes:
Though there’s very little known about Peter Levins, a preface to the 1867 edition by Henry B. Wheatley explains that Levin’s book was written partly out of a need to make a lower-priced dictionary so that “the poorer sorte may be able to bie it.” Levin’s egalitarian motivations may become even clearer by looking at the…