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I was reading the poem "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell when something struck me as odd. Let me quote two passages:

Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,

[...]

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,

Now, am I supposed to read flood as [fluːd], eternity as [ɪˌtɜː.nəˈtaɪ̯], and virginity as [vɜː(r)ˌdʒɪ.nəˈtaɪ̯]? Was one supposed to do so back in the 17th century? Or is this, and has always been, some sort of purely "visual" rhyme? The rest of the poem rhymes perfectly in contemporary English.

I guess I could sum it up in one question: What is the term for this type of rhyme?

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    I'm not an expert, but it seems that in English poetry sometimes one goes off the metre or rhyme, and a few little variations are accepted (and even welcomed). – ShreevatsaR Aug 30 '10 at 2:08
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    Before the Great Vowel Shift English, the long i, as in eye, was pronounced /iː/ and short i was pronounced /i/ (or maybe /ɪ/). I am guessing that eternity ended with a short i. Anyway, this poem was written partway through the Great Vowel Shift, when according to Wikipedia, eye had the pronunciation something like /ɪi/ or /əɪ/; my guess is that eternity was pronounced with /ɪ/ or /i/. If this wasn't an exact rhyme then, it was at least a much closer near-rhyme than it is today. – Peter Shor Jul 24 '11 at 15:55
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I think would and flood are or were rhyming pairs in some dialects of English. This is not surprising, as /ʊ/ (as in would) and /ʌ/ (as in flood) are similar vowel sounds. I think in some dialects of modern British English, the two vowels are merged. The general term for words that almost rhyme is called slant rhyme. Words that are spelled like they might rhyme but are not are called eye rhymes.

As for the second passage, I think it is just a rhyming pattern of AABC DDBC.

  • I was going to say that I feel totally stupid for missing that pattern, but then I realized that I was fooled by the rest of the poem being written in rhyming couplets. Well played, Mr Marvell. – RegDwigнt Aug 25 '10 at 23:01
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    Actually, northern British dialects (like Liverpool) have failed to split /ʊ/ and /ʌ/, rather than succeeding to merge them. benjamins.com/cgi-bin/… – JoFrhwld Aug 26 '10 at 1:58
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    Try and virginity did indeed have the same final vowel-sound. That was one of the many changes in the Great Vowel Shift. Both were once pronounced 'ee'. – Anonym Feb 10 '14 at 17:21
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Yes. Words like FLOOD could still have a rounded vowel in some varieties of London English in the mid-to-late 17th century. There were varieties where the vowel in FLOOD shortened early in the 16th century and developed an unrounded vowel /ʌ/ by the middle of the 17th. But there were other speakers for whom matters were otherwise. The orthoepist Christopher Cooper (1687) is one of them. In describing his own preferred pronunciation, Cooper quite unambiguously has a vowel like /ʊ/ (the vowel of modern HOOD) in words like BLOOD and FLOOD.

If you want to hear me reading this poem aloud in a reconstruction of how Marvell's own English pronunciation may well have sounded, click here.

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