Counting and Rhyming – two traditional poetic forms

I always enjoy experimenting with poetic forms I’ve not come across before. Recently Paul Brookes has introduced me to two delightful forms – both of them centuries old, but new to me – that use a combination of rhyme scheme and syllabic count per line. 

If you’re not already acquainted with Paul’s website The Wombwell Rainbow, I strongly urge you to spend some time exploring there. It’s a rich compendium of poetry, interviews, photographs and poetry prompts, characterised not only by Paul’s own fine poetic voice but also by his generosity in encouraging and sharing the work of others.

Paul’s ongoing #PoeticFormChallenge highlights a different form each week, inviting responses to the challenge of writing a corresponding poem. Some of the featured forms are familiar, others less so, and I have enjoyed the diverse range of traditions he has featured.

The bob and wheel, which has its origins in mediaeval poetry and song, takes its name from the craft of spinning. It consists of five lines; a short (two or three syllable) first line followed by four lines of six syllables each. The first, third and fifth lines rhyme, as do the second and fourth lines. We can present this schematically as follows:


In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a stirring ballad of romantic chivalry written in the 14th century, the bob and wheel is used to round off longer stanzas of unrhymed alliterative verse. The short initial line – the bob – acts as the link between the preceding stanza and the four rhyming lines of the wheel.

Chaucer employs a variation of the bob and wheel in The Tale of Sir Thopas. Other examples of the form can be found in Middle English and Middle Scots texts.

Jane Dougherty has written an elegant contemporary version of the bob and wheel, providing context with a preliminary stanza and using the bob – in this case the short line ‘I hear’ – very effectively as a pivot from one rhyme and metrical scheme to another, as well as giving emphasis to the shift in mood.

Walker and stalker

Walking where the leaves drift deep and rust-red dry,
in silence broken only by the wild jay’s cry,
where dapples fall in golden coins on dusty earth,
and every breathing thing waits for the rain, rebirth
of sprout and shoot and crawling things, tight buds, the spring,
we wait, hoof raised, paw poised, birds balanced on the wing.

I hear
twigs crack and heavy tread
of boots. Red flash, a deer
on flying hooves has fled
the danger creeping near.

My own take on the bob and wheel is here, and you can read further responses to the form on The Wombwell Rainbow website.

Rhyme and syllable count also feature in a traditional Welsh form called the awdl gywydd. It consists of quatrains ( four-line stanzas) with seven syllables per line and a complex rhyme pattern illustrated schematically below (the position of the internal rhymes in the second and fourth lines can vary slightly):


This intricately woven structure – Paul Brookes has likened it to a Celtic knot – provides a dynamic tension between advancement and retrospection that I have sought to exploit in my poem ‘Voyagers’. The title refers to the two Voyager spacecraft, launched some forty-five years ago and now travelling beyond the bounds of the solar system.


We dispatched them to explore
the outer planets, where we
can't go ourselves: observe rings,
moons, alluring mystery.

Beyond Neptune one final
image, of a pale blue dot
gently clasped in rays of light.
Thereafter, night. They can not

go back: blinded, must journey
on, two tiny travellers
alone on separate paths
through the vast, cold universe.

They are not – yet – lost in space.
We can still trace where they are,
faint signals from the darkness
telling us how fast, how far;

but not for long. Soon, voiceless,
they'll traverse interstellar
space, bearing golden records –
earth sounds, earth words. Who will hear?

You can read more examples of the awdl gywydd on The Wombwell Rainbow and the links that Paul has provided there. Jane Dougherty has developed the form further still in her hauntingly melodious poem ‘This dark night’, in which the internal rhyme occurs not just once but twice in the second and fourth lines of each stanza.

I tend not to use rhyme schemes in my poetry, so it’s been interesting and enjoyable to explore these traditional forms and their creative possibilities.

My thanks are due to Paul Brookes for encouraging me to extend my poetic boundaries through his Poetic Form Challenge, and to Jane Dougherty for kindly giving me permission to share her poetry. Here are the links to their websites:

Paul Brookes: The Wombwell Rainbow

Jane Dougherty: Jane Dougherty Writes