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What Is Rhyme Royal?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2016
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The rhyme royal was first used in English by 14th-century British wordsmith Geoffrey Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde and later in several other popular classics like The Canterbury Tales. Its stanza construction has a skeleton of seven lines of iambic pentameter, typically consisting of nine to 11 syllables for each line. The end of the first and third lines rhyme, as do the end of the second and fourth lines. Then the last word of the fifth line rhymes with the end of the fourth. The last two lines of the rhyme royal also end with words that rhyme each other &emdash; but not any of the other lines.

The first English line of rhyme royal, in Chaucer's first stanza of Troilus and Criseyde, exhibits the basic construction, despite the Middle English:
"The double sorrow of Troilus to tell/
That was the son of Priam, King of Troy,/
In loving how his áventurs fell/
From woe to weal, and after out of joy/
My purpose is, ere that I part from you./
Thesiphon, thou help me to endite/
These woeful verse &emdash; that weepen as I write."

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Chaucer's works are a testament to the style, but were written at a time when many pronunciations differed from today's, often leading to lack of interest from modern readers. The rhyme royal device spread popularly to the likes of Lord Milton and Shakespeare several hundred years later, until the style petered out in about the 18th century. For this reason, it enjoyed only periodic renaissance.

In Shakespeare's A Lover's Complaint, the rhyme royal comes to full flower in stanzas that sing with expression, while still following a strict framework of construction:
"O, pardon me, in that my boast is true:/
The accident which brought me to her eye/
Upon the moment did her force subdue,/
And now she would the caged cloister fly:/."

When a complete poem or even a book is written in the rhyme royal style, it is known as a ballade royal. Other examples of this device can be found from the work of William Wordsworth, in Resolution and Independence, back to James I of Scotland, who many believe coined the term to describe the device he used to write The Kingis Quair, or The King's Book. That work is noted for being the first ballade royal in any language to be crafted in the rhyme royal format.

Another view of some critics is that rhyme royal is derived from the French chant royal, which French poets developed from the 13th to the 15th centuries. The standard form consisted of five stanzas from eight to 16 lines without refrain, each stanza having an identical rhyming pattern. A refrain was added in the 15th century, with the conclusion generally being half the length of the stanza.

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