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There are many Ecclesiastical Latin hymns that incorporate a rhyming scheme that sounds very satisfying to an English ear. One common example:

Tantum ergo sacramentum
veneremur cernui
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui
praestet fides supplementum
sensuum defectui

It struck me, though, that I have never encountered a tail-rhyme scheme in any classical poetry I have seen. It all appears to be written in "blank verse" (to continue the comparison with English) with varying meters, especially dactylic hexameter.

Are there any classical examples of poetry with a rhyme scheme? Obviously, rhyme existed at this time, but I am looking for examples where it is more than a one-off flourish--as, for instance, alliteration and assonance might be considered.

If there are not any examples, I would also be interested in knowing when this started and why.

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    For what it's worth, the example you cite contains not rhymes but identities—simply put, the rhyming parts of the words start with the same sound. Rhyme would be something like retentum or centum. Jun 16, 2016 at 14:49
  • Well, if you want to be pedantic... :) The B rhyme isn't an identity though.
    – brianpck
    Jun 17, 2016 at 4:03
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    "If you want to be pedantic" . . . as if there were ever any question! I cede the point as far as cernui and the other two, but as far as ritui and defectui I stand my ground. Jun 17, 2016 at 7:17
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    This question deserves a more thorough answer, but rhyme is a Medieval invention which only arose with the shift to stress-based prosody rather than the quantity-based prosody of Classical Latin (and Greek). The authors of those ecclesiastical rhymes would have natively spoken a language where vowel quantity was not distinctive, so quantitative meter made no sense to them. For the Romans, stress was unimportant compared with quantity, so rhyme would not have made sense. (I'm not even sure it's true that "obviously, rhyme existed at this time", as a recognized effect.)
    – TKR
    Jun 17, 2016 at 16:16
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    @CannedMan Didn’t Quintilianus talk about rhymes? I remember he explaining the Greek word "homoeoptoton". It had to do with the cases and the declensions in Latin having a similar ending. But I'm not sure if he was talking about our modern rhyme.
    – user11898
    Jun 26, 2023 at 2:23

2 Answers 2

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I studied a lot of poetry from the time around the end of the republic and early periods of the empire, and the Romans at that time did not employ rhymes in their poetry. Rhyming in Latin is simply too easy, given the high flexibility of word order, so the poets used something a little more challenging to show off their skill.

What defined the poetry for them was meter. Dactylic hexameter was one of the most common, and was the defining meter of epic poems. To the best of my knowledge, this practice continued through the end of the empire, and rhyming did not come into practice until the Catholic Church became pretty much the only place to hear Latin in use.

This section of the Wikipedia article on rhyming gives an example of Cicero using a rhyme, but that was just prose.

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  • Interesting--so you think that rhyming wasn't "a thing" in Latin because it was just too easy? I'm curious now if there is an established way of measuring how easy it is to rhyme in a given language...
    – brianpck
    Jun 17, 2016 at 13:24
  • That was something I heard from one of my professors while I was in university, which I agree with. I suppose the case could also be made that the Romans had inherited a long tradition of metered, non-rhyming poetry from the Greeks, so they were keeping true to that. I think that's true, but I also think the Roman poets had high opinions of themselves, and needed a sufficiently challenging way of showing off their chops. I would say that any inflected language, especially one that puts little emphasis on word order, would be the easiest ones to rhyme in.
    – coralvanda
    Jun 18, 2016 at 6:56
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    I don't think "rhyme is too easy" is the explanation -- if so, you'd expect popular verse at least (i.e. verse not written by poets in high language) to occasionally be rhymed rather than quantitative, which AFAIK is not the case. Even lowbrow stuff like the bawdy lines shouted by Caesar's soldiers at his triumph is in quantitative meter, not rhyme. Btw the native Roman meter (Saturnian) is also quantitative and unrhymed.
    – TKR
    Jun 19, 2016 at 2:37
  • @TKR, that's a really interesting point. Perhaps we've only scratched the surface here, and there's a much deeper reason. Could it also be, though, that the tradition of metered, non-rhyming poetry was so strongly ingrained in the culture that even the plebes understood it, or perhaps that rhyming didn't really even enter their minds? I was also told by some professors that the poetry was sung, not merely recited. Although I have never heard any details about how it sounded (if such info even survives), perhaps that tradition also pushed toward meter.
    – coralvanda
    Jun 19, 2016 at 7:36
  • @coralv Could it also be, though, that the tradition of metered, non-rhyming poetry was so strongly ingrained in the culture that even the plebes understood it, or perhaps that rhyming didn't really even enter their minds? I think that's basically right. We only think of rhyme as a basic feature of poetry because we're modern Westerners raised in that tradition. There's no reason to think it would even have occurred to the Romans.
    – TKR
    Jun 19, 2016 at 15:42
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Yes, there probably was rhyme in ancient literature — not in the Latin or Germanic traditions, but the Celtic.

At any rate, rhyme seems to have been universal in Welsh poetry, right back to the earliest written records — the works of Aneirin and Taliesin, which the Oxford Book of Welsh Verse dates to the 6th century AD.

Those early poets would often have a series of 6 or 8 lines all with the same end-rhyme — made easier because in Welsh, only the final syllable is rhymed, whether stressed or unstressed; but they often added an internal rhyme as well.

It seems to me that, if rhyme was so well-developed in 6th Century Celtic Britain, it was probably a feature long before that, and quite likely in the other Celtic languages too — including, of course, Gaulish.

As long as Rome was powerful and confident, with a flourishing written literature, Romans might ignore the cultures of the conquered peoples, but as the empire weakened, they might have had to muck in more with their neighbours and might even start to be influenced by their cultures.

Could this be how rhyme came to enter later Latin poetry? It's just an idea.

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