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Rhyming conventions of Early Modern English

Andrew Marvell's poem To His Coy Mistress from the mid-1600's follows an AABBCCDD[...] rhyming pattern. Therefore, it is jarring when we get to the couplets:

And yonder all before us lie/ Deserts of vast eternity


then worms shall try/ That long-preserved virginity

This implies that either:

  • "lie" used to be pronounced as "lee" to rhyme with "eternity", and "try" used to be pronounced "tree" to rhyme with "virginity", or
  • much more likely, both "eternity" and "virginity" used to rhyme with "lie"/ "try".

Is this the case? If so, did this apply only to a few words like "eternity" and "virginity", or to anything with the super-common "-ity" prefix, like "formality", "ability", or any of the words listed here? And furthermore, if that is also the case, then when in the last 300 years did the change happen so quickly and so thoroughly that I cannot think of a single present-day "-ity" word that rhymes with "try"?

  • Or he just cheated and used a non-rhyme. Recall also William Blake's The Tiger: "What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?", a similar cop-out. Jul 24 '11 at 7:54
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    Interesting. How do you know for sure that Blake's line is a cop-out, out of curiosity? It seems suspicious to me that this is a mis-rhyme on the same sound ("eye", "lie", and "try" all rhyme, and "eternity", "virginity" and "symmetry" all rhyme). This actually makes the change in pronunciation more likely to me, since it seems so unreasonable to suppose that all of these "cop-outs" all just happen to be on the exact same sound. Jul 24 '11 at 7:58
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    BTW thanks for asking the question; I'd like to know the answer too. Aside: Marvell's To His Coy Mistress is indeed a great poem, but I also recommend A.D. Hope's His Coy Mistress to Mr. Marvell :-) Jul 24 '11 at 7:58
  • Wow, I'd never seen that poem before -- awesome find! Interestingly, it also has a mis-rhyme ("move" and "love") which I have very often found in Shakespeare. I suspect that one is a changed pronunciation too, although I'm assuming this second poem is recent enough for this to have been done "ironically" :) Jul 24 '11 at 8:03
  • If you look at the wikipedia article for the Great Vowel Shift, the vowel in eye was at that time pronounced /əi/ or /ɪi/, which, while still not the same vowel /i/ in eternity, is much closer, so might have been an acceptable near-rhyme. Since I don't know that much about this, and from the spelling, I'm guessing that the suffix -y started out as /i/ in 1400 (almost the same as the vowel /i:/ used in eye then), I'm not making this an answer. Jul 24 '11 at 10:51