Dr. Boli would like to quibble with something that is almost incidental to Mr. Gopnik’s argument. Mr. Gopnik repeats a notion that comes up so often that it must be a cliché of poetic criticism in English: “the impoverished rhyming resources of English…the scarcity of rhyme in English…” Like everyone else who brings up this subject, he compares our poverty with the rhyming richness of French or Italian.
This is exactly backwards. French and Italian are the rhyme-poor languages. They could never have produced an Ogden Nash or a W. S. Gilbert. A French or Italian poet has to look hard for rhymes that are interesting, because everything rhymes with everything else. Obligato, ostinato, moderato, pizzicato, agitato—just try writing an interesting poem about music in Italian. Look at a libretto for an average Italian opera—not a really good one, like the ones by Da Ponte, but an average one—and see how quickly the rhymes without the music put you to sleep. French is just as bad. Émergé, parlé, enseigné, pensé—almost every single past participle in the French language rhymes with every other past participle in the French language, and the few that don’t mostly form a club of rhymes in ‑u or ‑i. Rhyming in French is ridiculously easy, even with what would seem like a rarish rhyme, like ‑oi: doit, Benoit, fois, Québécois, roi, toi, crois.
Ma foi !
C’est moi !
—cried the French judge in a poem Dr. Boli just made up, slaving over it for fifteen seconds. Well, that’s an exaggeration.
The point is that making rhyme interesting in French takes all the talent of a Molière or a Baudelaire. In English, a rhymed poem is an adventure. Yes, rhyming correctly is harder in English, in the same way that a Boucher painting is more work than a 50-piece jigsaw puzzle. But that makes rhyming itself—even rhyming badly—a richer experience, in the same way that even painting a bad painting is a richer experience than putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
In The Mikado, when Ko-Ko starts to tell his life story, we feel as though we are watching a tight-rope walk between two skyscrapers. He can’t do it, we think. He can’t get through an entire song on the same two rhymes. But he does.
Taken from the county jail
By a set of curious chances;
Liberated then on bail,
On my own recognizances;
Wafted by a favouring gale
As one sometimes is in trances,
To a height that few can scale,
Save by long and weary dances;
Surely, never had a male
Under such like circumstances
So adventurous a tale,
Which may rank with most romances.
Now, if you had tried this trick in French, the jaded French audience would have said, “Et alors ?” That is because French is a language rich in rhymes in the same way that the desert is an environment rich in sand.
The next time you read a poem in English and notice that the poet has taken the trouble to make the lines rhyme, think of what an accomplishment that is. Think what an incomparably rich forest of rhyming possibilities we have in English. And spare a tear for the poor French and Italians, who have to make do with the resources they can scrounge from a rhyming desert.