The Lost Rhymes of Edgar Allan Poe, Part III

In my essay The Lost Rhymes of Edgar Allan Poe, Part II, I elaborated on how Poe’s lost rhymes might have once made sense. Using the “High Tider" accent as a template, rhymes such as mysteries and eyes might have made sense as mysteruys and uys. Other rhymes such as “pain” with “again” or “seen” with “been” could be products either of the accent which Poe grew up around in 19th century Richmond or of Poe’s boyhood in Britain.

By the end the Lost Rhymes, Part II, I had addressed several rhymes, offered a layman’s idea of how several rhymes might make sense, and admitted that some rhymes remained mysteries. Perhaps because Poe uses them so often, the most frustrating of these baffling rhymes were the rhymes between words such as “heaven,” “given,” and “even.”

The most reliable template for these rhymes seemed to be the rhyme between evil and devil which Poe uses in the sixteenth stanza of The Raven. In modern standard English, the vowel sounds in evil and devil are the same as the vowel sounds in heel and hell. By rhyming evil with devil — eyvil with deyvil — I was comfortable that Poe’s rhymes between words such as even and heaven also made sense as eyven and heyven.

But for Poe’s other rhymes to work, rhymes such as those between fever and given or even and striven, he wouldn’t have only been able to rhyme heel and hell. He would have also had rhyme heel and hell with hill. In modern southern English, the rhyme between heel and hill survives. But to my midwestern ears, the rhyme between hell and hill — a rhyme which should be possible if Poe’s rhymes between heaven and given or seven and striven were in fact rhymes — seemed too much of a stretch.

Frustrated, I left the project incomplete. Poe used the vowel sounds in heel, hell, and hill interchangeably, but I couldn’t figure out how.

The night after finished Lost Rhymes, Part II, my unanswered question remained how the rhymes between heel, hell, and hill were possible. In a flash — first one, than another — the answer, or at least one possible answer, hit me when listening to Joseph Foreman (i.e. Afroman) and Marshall Mathers (i.e. Eminem).

In Colt 45 (2001) and Without Me (2002) respectively, Foreman and Mathers used rhymes which I didn’t think were possible. At the very end of the refrain to Colt 45, Foreman rhymes sell and will:

If my tapes and my CDs just don’t sill

I bet my caddy will

Forman’s rhyme takes the ‘e’ sound in sell and the ‘i’ in will and merges them into an ‘i’ sound, into sill and will. In the second verse of Without Me, Mathers merges the ‘e’ and ‘i’ sounds in the same way:

Under your skin like a splinter

The cinter of attention back for the winter

I now feel silly that such a rhyme once seemed so impossible. The answer was staring me right in the face. After all, the same ‘e’ and ‘i’ sounds are rhymed by Early Simmons (i.e. DMX) in X Gon Give It To Ya (2003):

I ain’t got it so you can’t git it

Lets leave it at that cuz I ain’t wit it

It is not only the rhymes between heel and hill which survive in non-standard English. The rhymes between hell and hill survive too — even if they survive in non-standard English.

I may have been mistaken in my earlier guess as to how the rhyme between evil and devil might have rhymed. My first guess — or at the least the first guess which made the most sense — was that they rhymed as eyvil and deyvil. They may well have. But Foreman, Mathers, and Simmons make me wonder whether they were pronounced more like ivil and divil — the ‘i’ and ‘e’ sounds merged into an single ‘i’ sound. Poe’s rhymes between words such as heaven and given or seven and striven, in turn, may have been pronounced more like hiven and given and as siven and striven.

I don’t know how the rest of Poe’s lost rhymes will make sense — if they were rhymes in the first place, which I’m inclined to think they were — but I’m going to enjoy seeing what other little revelations hip-hop and other forms of non-standard English have to offer.