It has been said the phrase without rhyme or reason stems back to a quatrain sent by Edmund Spenser to Queen Elizabeth. Allegedly Spenser was promised a payment of one hundred pounds, perhaps the reason for the rhyme? The Lord High Treasurer William Cecil refused to authorise the payment, believing it was too much. After receiving no payment for a period of time, Spenser sent the following quatrain to Queen Elizabeth:
I was promis’d on a time,
To have a reason for my rhyme:
But from that time unto this season,
I had neither rhyme or reason.
It is believed that, on receiving the quatrain, the Queen immediately instructed Cecil to make the payment.
Dating back further, it is believed to be recorded by John Russell’s The Boke of Nuture (c. 1460) as such:
As for ryme or reson, ye forewryter was not to blame,
For as he founde hit afore hym, so wrote he ye same.
In 1548, prior to Spenser’s birth, Nicholas Udall’s translation of The first tome or volume of the paraphrase of Erasmus upon the Newe Testament used the more usual term “rhyme nor reason”:
Seeyng there is nether ryme ne reason in saing ye one eiuill spirite driueth out an other eiuil spirite.
Shakespeare utilised the phrase more than once, first in his 1590 play Comedy of Errors, and then again in As You Like It in 1600.
From Comedy of Errors (1590):
Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season,
When in the why and the wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason?
From As You Like It (1600):
ROSALIND: But are you so much in love as your rhymes speak?
ORLANDO: Neither rhyme nor reason can express how much.
The phrase is still used in modern times to refer to something that makes no sense.