When did scholars start using letters to indicate rhyme schemes?

The question wasn’t exactly new. I had heard ones like it before, in emails and at conferences: When did scholars start using letters to indicate rhyme schemes?

Welcome to my world.

One day the Princeton Prosody Archive will have the data to answer this question. Though the PPA has not officially launched, its beta version has already become invaluable to scholars across the country.

Professor Ben Glaser, who posed the original question on behalf of a student of his, works on the meter of modernism and has used PPA data to confirm his hunch that the word “rhythm” supplanted the word “meter” in texts pertaining to the study of poetry over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. But letter-based rhyming schemes?

I thought that surely someone must have indicated rhyme in this way before the nineteenth-century; it is such a common practice for the teaching of rhyme schemes. I went hunting for the answer, and though I haven’t found it yet, if I do, we’ll write about it here. 

A full answer might not be available in the PPA quite yet, for a few reasons:

  1. We only collect works written in English (for now).
  2. We only have a fraction of the works we know we’d like to have, and are working this year to re-integrate work by Samuel Johnson, Hugh Blair and Lindley Murray, and to create a master list of works we need (and figure out how to get them).
  3. Though the search capabilities of our limited archive are quite good, rhyme schemes are often indicated vertically, so a regular search wouldn’t display something like: 

A
B
B
A

I can’t find much in what we have from the eighteenth-century or earlier that isn’t merely descriptive. For now, I think the date might be as late as 1874, when a man named Charles Tomlinson started categorizing sonnets in a piece titled “The Sonnet: It’s Origin, Structure, and Place in Poetry” which is quoted in Hiram Corson’s 1892 A Primer of Verse (an often reprinted book which may have popularized the practice).

Until we finish this year’s labor of figuring out what volumes we’re missing and coming up with a way to add them to the archive we have, we’ll have to wait to find the full answer. In the meantime I learn something new every time I dive into this collection of texts.

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