Bob and Wheel Poetry Form: Spin Euphony in Verse

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Here’s what the Bob and Wheel poetry form is:

The bob and wheel is a technique comprised of a wheel, four lines with a ballad-style rhyme scheme, and a bob, the short line that marks a transition between the preceding lines of the poem and the wheel.

This is commonly accompanied by a drastic shift in meter.

This technique was most common in Middle English.

So if you want to learn all about the Bob and Wheel poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s jump into it!

Bob and Wheel Type (Simply Explained & Examples)

Forms of Poetry: Bob and Wheel

Lavender bouquet on open book and woman's summer hat on old wicker chair in the garden.

The term “bob and wheel” refers to a combination of metrical schemes individually called the bob and the wheel.

A wheel is a technique in which the end of each stanza returns to a specific meter, while a bob is a very short line that marks the beginning of the wheel.

The bob and wheel is a very distinctive technique of meter that’s hard to miss, even when reading casually because it forcefully disrupts the flow of the poem at regular intervals.

The existence of the bob, in particular, makes it nearly impossible to ignore, even when the reader doesn’t know what the technique is called.

It’s worth noting that while the bob and wheel poetry does have dozens of examples, particularly in Middle English, they feature enough variation such that some of the rules of the bob and wheel have to be considered optional rather than mandatory.

The most famous example of the bob and wheel is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written by an unknown poet who is often referred to as the Pearl Poet or the Gawain Poet, but it is not the first or only example of the form.

Basic Properties of Bob and Wheel

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Rhyme StructureStrict
PopularityMost common during Middle English

What Is the Wheel and Why Is It Used?

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The wheel is essentially the main quatrain that follows the bob.

The rhyme scheme of the bob and wheel together is ABABA.

The Pearl Poet used the bob and wheel at the end of lengthy unrhymed stanzas of alliterative verse, which gave the wheel a heavy presence in the poem.

The lines of the wheel are commonly six syllables, but not always.

It should be noted that there are examples, particularly in Middle English, of the wheel being used without the bob. (In this case, the rhyme scheme is ABAB.)

The main purpose of the wheel is to provide a unique musicality to the final part of each stanza.

The meter may not necessarily be a predefined rhythm, but rather one decided by the poet independently.

Beautiful violin lies on the grass with flowers.

Using a wheel repeatedly in each stanza enforces a sense of familiarity as the reader is returned to this meter again and again, which naturally allows the reader to acclimate to the abruptness of the wheel over time as they come to expect it.

This approach has many of the same benefits of using a chorus or refrain, without actually repeating any words.

The wheel can also be used to draw attention to a difference in tone or perspective.

It might represent the moment that the poem alternates between the viewpoints of two different speakers, or a tonal shift from serious to comical. It can otherwise mark a stylistic shift.

What Is the Bob and Why Is It Used?

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The bob is a short line that acts as the transition between the preceding verse and the wheel.

This line can be as short as two syllables, and often is much shorter than every other line in the stanza as a result, so it’s pretty hard to miss even if you’re not looking for it.

The bob also kicks off the combined rhyme scheme of the bob and wheel (ABABA).

The bob’s purpose is to abruptly announce the arrival of the wheel.

Even if all lines in the poem were six syllables, the sudden drop in length would feel naturally significant to the reader.

This emphasizes the already large divide between the wheel and the rest of the poem.

The bob is interesting in that it makes no attempt at introducing the wheel organically or softly.

Instead, the reader is violently thrust into a completely new rhyme scheme and meter, which will repeat throughout the poem and make itself apparent as an intentional part of the overall piece’s structure.

Example of a Bob and Wheel Poem

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This excerpt is from the end of the first stanza of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, featuring the bob and wheel, along with four poems from the upper part of the stanza to showcase the shift.

from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the Pearl Poet

Ticius to Tuskan and teldes bigynnes,
Langaberde in Lumbardie lyftes up homes,
And fer over the French flod Felix Brutus
On mony bonkkes ful brode Bretayn he settes
with wynne,
Where werre and wrake and wonder
Bi sythes has wont therinne,
And oft bothe blysse and blunder
Ful skete has skyfted synne.

While the poem is written in Middle English and may not be comfortable for modern readers, it should be possible to make out the basic elements of the bob and wheel.

A cursory glance tells us that the bob and wheel does follow the expected ABABA rhyme scheme, despite the fact that the preceding lines are unrhymed.

This is a normal and even expected usage of the technique.

The bob, in this case, is the short line “with wynne,” just above the wheel.

Quill pen, inkwell, and scrolls on wooden desk.

The importance of the bob isn’t so much the words in it as the white space that it brings, giving it a physical presence on the page.

Even when spoken aloud, the reader should naturally pause between lines, enforced further here by a comma.

The lines of the wheel are seven syllables in this case, but the poet does stick strictly to seven syllables so as to enforce uniformity in the poem.

Note that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is written entirely in alliterative verse, so you should consider the alliteration a stylistic element of the overarching poem rather than a definitive element of the bob and wheel.

Next, we’ll explore a modernized take on the bob and wheel prepared for this article, leaving alliterative verse behind:

I look outside and see the sun
and I think to myself, with glee,
that today might be a happy day
if luck would so allow
but then
perhaps I should expect
to be let down again
or else my will be wrecked
when I set down my pen.

Vintage woman, redhead sitting and looking outside the window.

In this example, the line lengths for the wheel are set at six syllables.

As always, the rhyme scheme and the existence of the bob announce the wheel in a dramatic fashion.

Of special note in this example is the harsh tonal shift between the first half of the stanza and the wheel.

While the first half of the stanza is optimistic and sounds like a poem that will celebrate the coming of morning, it is suddenly punctuated by the harsh presence of “but then” which heralds the approach of a pessimistic wheel.

The structural elements of the bob and wheel naturally lend themselves to this type of dramatic shift.

Poet’s Note

Pen lays on paper.

While the bob and wheel is often relegated to Middle English, that doesn’t mean you can’t use the technique effectively in the modern day.

For best results, make sure you have some reason to use the bob and wheel, such as in the modern example at the end of the article.

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