Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Rhyme was probably invented to assist the memory, and to regulate at the same time the song and the dance. The return of the same sounds served to bring easily and readily to the recollection the intermediate words between the two rhymes. Those rhymes were a guide at once to the singer and the dancer; they indicated the measure. Accordingly, in every country, verse was the language of the gods.

We may therefore class it among the list of probable, that is, of uncertain, opinions, that rhyme was at first a religious appendage or ceremony; for after all, it is possible that verses and songs might be addressed by a man to his mistress before they were addressed by him to his deities; and highly impassioned lovers indeed will say that the cases are precisely the same.

A rabbi who gave a general view of the Hebrew language, which I never was able to learn, once recited to me a number of rhymed psalms, which he said we had most wretchedly translated. I remember two verses, which are as follows:

Hibbitu clare vena haru

Ulph nehem al jeck pharu.

“They looked upon him and were lightened, and their faces were not ashamed.”

No rhyme can be richer than that of those two verses; and this being admitted, I reason in the following manner:

The Jews, who spoke a jargon half Phœnician and half Syriac, rhymed; therefore the great and powerful nations, under whom they were in slavery, rhymed also. We cannot help believing, that the Jews — who, as we have frequently observed, adopted almost everything from their neighbors — adopted from them also rhyme.

All the Orientals rhyme; they are steady and constant in their usages. They dress now as they have dressed for the long series of five or six thousand years. We may, therefore, well believe that they have rhymed for a period of equal duration.

Some of the learned contend that the Greeks began with rhyming, whether in honor of their gods, their heroes, or their mistresses; but, that afterwards becoming more sensible of the harmony of their language, having acquired a more accurate knowledge of prosody, and refined upon melody, they made those requisite verses without rhyme which have been transmitted down to us, and which the Latins imitated and very often surpassed.

As for us, the miserable descendants of Goths, Vandals, Gauls, Franks, and Burgundians — barbarians who are incapable of attaining either the Greek or Latin melody — we are compelled to rhyme. Blank verse, among all modern nations, is nothing but prose without any measure; it is distinguished from ordinary prose only by a certain number of equal and monotonous syllables, which it has been agreed to denominate “verse.”

We have remarked elsewhere that those who have written in blank verse have done so only because they were incapable of rhyming. Blank verse originated in an incapacity to overcome difficulty, and in a desire to come to an end sooner.

We have remarked that Ariosto has made a series of forty-eight thousand rhymes without producing either disgust or weariness in a single reader. We have observed how French poetry, in rhyme, sweeps all obstacles before it, and that pleasure arose even from the very obstacles themselves. We have been always convinced that rhyme was necessary for the ears, not for the eyes; and we have explained our opinions, if not with judgment and success, at least without dictation and arrogance.

But we acknowledge that on the receipt at Mount Krapak of the late dreadful literary intelligence from Paris, our former moderation completely abandons us. We understand that there exists a rising sect of barbarians, whose doctrine is that no tragedy should henceforward be ever written but in prose. This last blow alone was wanting, in addition to all our previous afflictions. It is the abomination of desolation in the temple of the muses. We can very easily conceive that, after Corneille had turned into verse the “Imitation of Jesus Christ,” some sarcastic wag might menace the public with the acting of a tragedy in prose, by Floridor and Mondori; but this project having been seriously executed by the abbé d’Aubignac, we well know with what success it was attended. We well know the ridicule and disgrace that were attached to the prose “Œdipus” of De la Motte Houdart, which were nearly as great as those which were incurred by his “Œdipus” in verse. What miserable Visigoth can dare, after “Cinna” and “Andromache,” to banish verse from the theatre? After the grand and brilliant age of our literature, can we be really sunk into such degradation and opprobrium! Contemptible barbarians! Go, then, and see this your prose tragedy performed by actors in their riding-coats at Vauxhall, and afterwards go and feast upon shoulder of mutton and strong beer.

What would Racine and Boileau have said had this terrible intelligence been announced to them? “Bon Dieu”! Good God! from what a height have we fallen, and into what a slough are we plunged!

It is certain that rhyme gives a most overwhelming and oppressive influence to verses possessing mere mediocrity of merit. The poet in this case is just like a bad machinist, who cannot prevent the harsh and grating sounds of his wires and pulleys from annoying the ear. His readers experience the same fatigue that he underwent while forming his own rhymes; his verses are nothing but an empty jingling of wearisome syllables. But if he is happy in his thoughts and happy also in his rhyme, he then experiences and imparts a pleasure truly exquisite — a pleasure that can be fully enjoyed only by minds endowed with sensibility, and by ears attuned to harmony.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01