Children learn about rhyme probably before they can speak, but certainly they start to be able to do it – for fun and with relish – as soon as they can talk easily.
My granddaughter and I used to go for walks and do rhyming. I would say, 'What do you want for Christmas? Do you want a mat? .... Or do you want a cat? Or do you want a ....' and she would roar HAT (or RAT or BAT), and fall about with delight. She would even invent words that rhymed. TAT! WAT! DAT!
Create a space and a rhyme falls into it. Goodness knows why rhyming sense is fun. But Dr Seuss, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, A A Milne, Lynley Dodd and Julia Donaldson are just a few of the names that have profited and continue to profit from this fact. They have entertained children and parents for over a century and a half.
I think it's something to do with knowing what's coming while at the same time being slightly surprised. If I read aloud from A. A. Milne's The Christopher Robin Story Book, or happen to say to you
Weatherby George Dupree
Care of his Mother
Though he was only ...
won't you leap into the fray with THREE? Can you resist saying 'three'? And
Said to his Mother
'Mother,' he said, said he;
'You must never go down to the end of the town, if you don't go down
You will finish the line for me, won't you? Me. Me. ME!
But some of the rhyming verses you learn as a child don't rhyme properly. The old ones, the authorless ones that get passed down over generations – some of them have terrible rhymes.
Jack and Jill, as I feel sure you know, went up a hill to get a pail of water. When Jack fell down, he bumped his crown, which rhymed nicely, but 'Jill came tumbling after' is miserably disappointing. 'Water' absolutely does not rhyme with 'after'.
And this happens a lot. Look at Ding Dong Bell / Pussy's in the well.
Little Johnny Thin and Little Tommy Stout rhyme neatly. But what about the cat who 'ne'er did any harm'? 'Harm' does not rhyme with the farmer's 'barn', except for the purposes of this ditty (which by the way is grossly modernised on Wikipedia and not the version I grew up with). Still – harm/barn? You can make it rhyme. You can hear the similarity. You can hear a similarity between 'water' and 'after'. But it's not a full-blooded, satisfying, click-into-place rhyme.
As a child I knew the difference. Everybody knows the difference.
But where are we now? Contemporary poets are nervous about rhymes and go to all sorts of lengths to avoid the delicious neatness they might offer. Perfect rhyme is looked down on, with much the same raising of eyebrows as goes with the word 'Georgian'.
But poets still pair words like 'sleeping' and 'walking'. Or they may slant-rhyme 'cat' with 'pot' (Philip Larkin being the grand master of brilliant slant rhyme). They rhyme in the middle of lines instead of at the end. They rhyme without a metrical pattern to drive the rhyme home. They rhyme singular with plural (hope / envelopes). Or most commonly they rhyme not at all.
It has been suggested to me on more than one occasion that contemporary magazines reject certain poems because they rhyme. I do not think this is true. It is more likely that the editor felt the poem weak for other reasons. But rhyming is both easy and hard to do. That is to say anyone can rhyme with certain words (the balladeers exploited that to the full by regularly ending lines on sounds like 'lie' and 'say', for which there are many matches). But rhyming with the panache of Hilaire Belloc or Roald Dahl or W H Auden or is a true art.
Most of the rhymers I have mentioned here wrote for children or humorously, and it is in humorous writing that rhyme still flourishes. The fortieth edition of Lighten Up Online is proof of this alone, and Martin Parker's 'Ermyntrude and the Higgs Boson' offers a number of inspired rhymes for the Hadron Collider. It can still be done.
And not just in light verse. Ruth Pitter, who lived into the last decade of the twentieth century, continued to rhyme all her life. She rhymed through modernism, post modernism and beyond. Olive Dehn loved rhyming, and it worked for her. And of course, Charles Causley, whom I wrote about last week – the man could rhyme.
'New' poets often go to considerable lengths to flout convention, as artists are supposed to do. They drop punctuation. They spatter words across the page. They right justify. They put things in boxes. They put things in columns. They superimpose text with other text. They cross things out. They invent symbols and signs to substitute for words. (They don't, usually, write for children.) Despite all of this, most contemporary poems look, at first glance, remarkably similar to one another. For example (as I have pointed out elsewhere) the practice of writing in (unrhymed) couplets is currently so common as to be a contemporary convention, as well as frequently associated with poems that win competitions.
But rhyme is no longer a convention in non-humorous, contemporary, literary, page poetry. (In performance work, it's a different story, though I might say something about that another time.) Not-rhyming is the convention in page poetry (except at weddings and funerals), even though readers appear to continue to enjoy it, from childhood onwards. I wonder how long it will be before use of rhyme will radicalise the page. It hasn't been in fashion now, except in light verse, for a very long time. It's hard though. It's hard not to sound like a greetings' card. It's hard to do it well.
And hard to write good poems – has been from the year dot.
(Hard to write good poems, whether they rhyme or not.)