From “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath:

Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses

In English poetry, a perfect rhyme has identical vowels but different onsets, like come and sum. An identical rhyme has identical vowel and onset, like come and become. Pairs of homonyms and homophones are identical rhymes but not perfect rhymes, and most people consider them inferior.

Holorime, where entire lines rhyme, is likewise stigmatized in English poetry:

For I scream
For ice cream

Most consider this a trifle at best, doggerel at worst.

This judgment makes some sense for the mere repetition of a word as “rhyme,” which may indicate a lack of creativity. However, that makes less sense to me for examples like the wordplay in holorime and in the Black Sabbath song. Furthermore, some other languages value identical rhyme, like rime riche in French poetry.

Did identical rhyme fall out of favor at some point, or was it never well-accepted to begin with? Was there any period where it was in fashion in England as in France? Is it considered low poetry for the same reasons that puns are considered low humor in English? Are there forms of English poetry or song where it's more highly regarded – perhaps in limerick or rap, which value wordplay?

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    – Jim
    May 12, 2013 at 4:25
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    Because they're boring, as are all repetitions but homozygous twins. Reading twin studies is fascinating. Having to repeat a word because the poet can't find or create even a slant rhyme suggests a poverty of imagination or a lack of interest. We expect more from good writers, even if it's unreasonable.
    – user21497
    May 12, 2013 at 4:28
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    It's not an obvious pun, merely using homophones that may have different meanings in this context. Clearly, the lyric compares generals & witches to show that they're both groups of evildoers. Witches have their black masses (rituals), but generals don't. There may be a mass of generals if enough of them gather together, but what's it called? A mass of cancer cells is called a tumor, a mass of generals, perhaps a rumor or an Uma (fringefoot lizards). Hitchcock's pun changed the stress & wasn't in a verse. Why shouldn't English be different? Different history => different values.
    – user21497
    May 12, 2013 at 4:53
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    "A pun is the lowest form of humor, but a poem is verse." Even limericks should have different words for rhymes to be considered 1st-class, but it's not always possible. Rhyme fell out of favor with high-class English-language poets in the 19th & 20th centuries. As did rigid forms like the sonnet etc. Now we have "found poems" & bastardizations of "stream of consciousness" squibs that purport to be poetry. Even spontaneous rappers try to avoid repeating the same word for a rhyme, if they can: it's tough. What's a poet's goal? What's a songwriter's? It's all about creativity & novelty.
    – user21497
    May 12, 2013 at 5:32
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    @BraddSzonye your premise that "English is different" is too strong. The exact same phenomenon exists in many languages I consider myself familar with, from German to Russian. And John Lawler's answer applies to them to the same extent it applies to English. If rime riche proves anything at all, then it's that French is the odd one out.
    – RegDwigнt
    May 12, 2013 at 15:08

2 Answers 2


This is a very deep question and I've wondered myself, often, why perfect rhymes sound so awful.
I don't have an answer (let alone the answer). All I have is some pieces.

Item: There is no doubt that such an effect exists, and is predictable and general.
It's similar to the priming that occurs with a ticking clock that jolts us when it stops.

Item: There is significant phonosemantic coherence among the 483 English rimes.
This can provide a semantic "rhyme" to match a phonological one in end rhyme.

Item: Rhyming poetry is a modern invention.
There is no known poetic tradition anywhere using end-rime before around 300 AD.

Item: Rhyming poetry reached its zenith in Medieval Latin religious and goliardic poetry,
leading directly to the rhymed Tuscan of Dante, and forgettable attempts at English rhymed epics.

Item: End-rhyme is significantly easier in a suffixal synthetic language, like Latin or Italian,
than in an uninflected analytic language, like English, as John Ciardi points out.

But that's just pieces. What they suggest to me is that there is a significant anticipation set up by a rhyme scheme, just like the anticipation of a clock's ticking that allows us to cancel it out automatically. Until it stops ticking and we're alerted by the unmet prediction. This has the same feel.

I suspect that the psychological effect of rhymed poetry is such that the pleasant effect is mediated by an expectation of a patterned phonological difference, which is not met by absolute phonological identity.

I also suspect that the difficulty of making rhymed poetry in English is a big part of the reason why it's fallen out of favor in official poetry. That, and the rise of popular music, which certainly has lots of uses for rhyme, but is not officially considered poetry, since a lot of people pay a lot of money for it.

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    +1 Excellent pieces. The most compelling bit is that identical rhyme is conspicuous. Ciardi's essay shows how repetition can be brilliant, as in the finale of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” But when it's not brilliant – or at least fresh – conspicuous poetry sounds awkward. Dissonance is a better word than boredom for this kind of dissatisfaction, I think. May 12, 2013 at 22:08
  • This is a fine answer, especially your penultimate paragraph. The insight is original and plausible. All praise aside, I balk at Rhyming poetry is a modern invention.... We have minimal evidence about poetic tradition, end-rimed or not, prior to 300 A.D. The Library at Alexandria was razed around then. We have some poetry and theater from the Roman Empire and Republic, Athens, but not much. May 13, 2013 at 20:51
  • People like rhymes! Limerick... or haiku? My point isn't anti-elitist. My favorite poets are John Donne, Jonathon Edwards, Baudelaire and T.S. Eliot. All wrote end-riming poems (admittedly, using highly structured verse forms, which I am fond of). Maybe that proves nothing, other than that I like their work for the wrong, or simple-minded ;o) reasons. May 13, 2013 at 20:53
  • I'm still curious about what makes identical rhyme good in some instances (like rime riche and “Stopping by Woods”), but this answer has satisfied my curiosity about what makes it inferior in most instances. May 13, 2013 at 22:28
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    +1 I have a minor theory about perfect rhymes, which is that we can include perfect rhyme before a "real" rhyme. Preventing perfect rhyme from occurring before a real rhyme can actually be quite difficult. I think that when we hear a perfect rhyme the problem is that we're still waiting for the "real one" and when that doesn't come it jars. Compare "I used to want to eat a lime, but I couldn't ever eat that lime" with "I used to want to eat a lime, but I couldn't ever eat that lime in time" (yes, I know they're both pretty bad, but hey, it's late here ...) Apr 14, 2015 at 0:24

I think that perfect rhymes communicate resonance, while identical rhymes communicate stasis.

Vowel sounds are the most elongated and resonant aspects of language, while consonants are more initiating, assertive and distinguishing. Consonants represent distinct percussive impulsion, while vowels are the trailing echoes that follow such incitements.

So perfect rhyme illustrates different initiations finding the same echo, and thus suggests a shared environment within which two distinct initiating sounds draw a similar echo, like two persons calling from different peaks across the same Alpen soundscape, and hearing quite similar echoes in response.

Identical rhyme, by contrast, has no distinctly different initiation, and thus communicates repetition rather than resonance.

Now, I would take issue with your presupposition that identical rhyme is always inferior to perfect rhyme. I think that each has its uses, depending upon whether the poet wishes to convey resonance or repetition.

Emily Dickinson, for example, gives us these famous lines about death:

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground—

As another example, the late Walter Becker wrote the following in a song lyric:

Driving like a fool out to Hackensack
Drinking his dinner from a paper sack

Dickinson usually did use non-identical rhymes, so rhyming Ground with Ground must have been an intentional digression. It's as if she were saying, "this is Death, we're not going any further here, we're stuck in the same place."

And maybe Becker felt the same way about Hackensack.

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