A Case Study: Blank White Page and Slant Rhymes
Today, we’re going to take a look at slant rhymes in action with the help of our good friends (and my life’s recent Godsend) Mumford and Sons. The resonant opening lines of their song “Blank White Page” calls attention to the potential power of imperfect rhymes. Listen to the lines and skip past the break to delve oceans deep into this topic.
Let’s start with a transcription of these first two lines:
as well as your body?
as well as your folly?
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll call these the first two “stanzas” of the song. Now for the dissection!
Slant Rhymes, Emphasized Syllables, and Why This Rhyme Is Interesting
There’s a lot of poetic richness to digest here, but the focus of this particular exercise is the gorgeous slant rhyme. Now, slant rhymes, for those who have neither education nor the willingness to make an intuitive leap, is just a rhyme that isn’t really a rhyme. A true rhyme, by definition, must rhyme all consonant and vowel sounds that occur after the first emphasized syllable of a word. A slant rhyme (also known as a “near rhyme,” “imperfect rhyme,” or “rapper’s rhyme”—and yes, I just made that last one up, but it fits) matches the vowel or the consonant elements of a word, and we’re pretty comfortable with that match happening only in the last syllable.
Now, a true rhyme with body (bod-ee) would have to start at the first syllable and match the full “od-ee” sound (shoddy would be one example; shout out your ideas for other direct rhymes in the comments). Obviously, Mumford and Sons doesn’t give us that perfect rhyme, but what makes the choice of “folly” (fol-ee) so interesting is that it’s incredibly close. The rhyme starts at the first syllable and matches two sounds, which is more mirroring than is even necessary for many other words (“bye” and “lie” or “low” and “show” only provide single-sound match-ups).
What makes this particular rhyme even more interesting is that the two sounds being matched up are vowel sounds falling around a consonant sound. This is significant because of what the ear is listening for: Our ears are trained to listen for specific patterns, and when those patterns aren’t fulfilled, our ears and minds are naturally drawn to the areas of difference. We call this subversion.
The final word of these two lines subverts multiple expectations. We’ll take those subverted expectations one at a time.
The Expected Rhyme
First, that initial sound (the “fo” of folly responding to the “bo” of body), in combination with the fairly strict way the rhythm is mirrored between the stanzas, leads us to expect a rhyme. Since our ear is tuned for a rhyme, the L of folly stands out—especially after the second vowel sound (ee) is matched. That the L stands out allows the ear to more naturally pick up on some of the lyric sound being used here: Notice that the L connects us, through alliteration, all the way back through the line. And can you lie next to her and confess your love, your love, as well as your folly?
Now, this isn’t the only piece of lyricism being used. We have some fantastic assonance happening in this line, and you can even argue that “confess” and “folly” form a very, very slanted rhyme. The ridiculously imperfect rhyme happens wit h the “ah” noise in syllable one matching fully and the “eh” of confess matching the transitionary noise between the L and ee of folly (pronounce “folly” very slowly and you can hear that slight “eh” as we shift between the noises). However, it’s all tied together by that L, which is lit up by the precise way in which this rhyme slants.
The Expected Dichotomy
But that’s the first subversion. Second, each line is set up as an internal call-and-response: Can you do this and that? Since the pattern of the first line takes us to a familiar dichotomy (we know that heart/body are two connected but opposing forces in human connection and sexuality), and the second line calls back to “heart” with “love,” we expect a similar dichotomy to emerge. Embedded within the pattern is an implicit connection between the way heart relates to body and the way love relates to … whatever comes next.
There are traditional ways in which the final word of the lines could have fulfilled our expectations in a cleaner, simpler, and far less interesting way. Love is frequently juxtaposed with “lust” in just the way heart and body are juxtaposed in the first stanza of this song, and lust comes in a variety of shades that could have been fit in. Hell, a slant rhyme between body and “wanting” would have worked just fine. There are dozens of options for how our expectations could have been fulfilled.
What’s important is that folly does not fulfill those expectations. Folly is not a tradition way of expressing desire. However, our minds naturally try to do the work of connecting the dots anyway, related “folly” to the physical elements of human connection. Is it folly because it’s sinful? Because the speaker is talking about a loss of control? Or is this folly something else entirely? The ambiguity is gorgeous: with a single word we open up a mystery, build the reader’s (or listener’s) curiosity, and raise questions about the connection between physicality and folly.
All while adding a gorgeously illuminated string of alliteration. In other words, bravo, Mumford and Sons. What fantastic opening lines you’ve presented us with.
Conclusions: Near Rhymes Slap People
What near rhymes really do is slap people across the face with the part of the word or phrase that doesn’t rhyme. If done decently, you can hide the parts that are mismatched. However, if done brilliantly, as we see here, it can empower the lines—in their patterns, connections, and lyric elements.
Here’s what you should take away from this lesson: Whenever you create a pattern, you can either please people by fulfilling expectations or interest people by subverting those expectations. Even an element as small as a slant rhyme can work as a powerful subversion if the elements of difference in that slant rhyme call back to other elements of the poem (or, obviously, song).
I demand a comment! I spent all this time doing this case study. Now it’s your turn. Do you have any other great examples of powerful slant rhymes? Do you have any other Mumford and Sons songs that everyone absolutely should check out? And do you have a suggestion for the next case study?