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What Is Alliteration?
Alliteration is a type of figurative language that relies on repetition of stressed initial sounds. Unlike rhyming, which typically occurs at the end of words, alliteration happens at the beginning of words that are next to each other, or nearby. Outside of poetry, alliteration is common in names, such as Tweedledum and Tweedledee or Bob the Builder, and alliterative phrases, like kitty-corner.
An Example of Alliteration
“Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers
From many a people their mead-benches tore.”
—Beowulf (translated from the Heyne-Socin text by Lesslie Hall)
The use of alliteration in the opening lines of the epic poem Beowulf creates a sing-song rhythm and also helps build associations. The name “Scyld the Scefing” is easier to remember because of its alliteration, an important quality in a long poem with so many characters. This passage is a good example of the fact that alliteration doesn’t have to be strictly between adjacent words: Spear/splendid; folk/former/fame; and princes/prowess are all examples of alliteration between words that are nearby, but not necessarily right next to each other.
What Is Consonance?
Consonance is a poetic device involving the repetition of consonant sounds, usually at the end of stressed syllables and without repetition of vowels. Consonance is a little more flexible than alliteration, since the repeated sounds can be found anywhere in a word, not necessarily at the very beginning.
An Example of Consonance
“When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.”
—“When You Are Old” by W. B. Yeats
Repeating R sounds (gray, fire, read) and L sounds (old, full, sleep, slowly, look) create a sense of sleepy rhythm in the first stanza of Yeats’s poem about dozing old age. (The iambic pentameter also contributes to the sense of rhythm). This is a good example of how consonance can occur anywhere in a word, and sometimes even twice in the same word (such as in slowly).
What Is Assonance?
Assonance refers to repetition of a vowel sound, usually on stressed syllables, in words that are close together. Assonance can create internal rhyme, such as in “bake a cake,” or not rhyme at all, such as in “down and out.”
An Example of Assonance
“Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.”
—The Lord’s Prayer, New Testament
In this very famous example from the bible, kingdom and come rhyme, while done, in the next line, repeats the same vowel sound without rhyming. The repetition of vowel sounds makes this prayer easy to remember without including too much rhyme.
How to Use Alliteration, Consonance, and Assonance in Poetry
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Alliteration, consonance, and assonance are all literary devices that can be used instead of rhyming in poetry to create a musical effect, or to engage the reader’s auditory senses in another way. Think of the onomatopoeia created by the phrase “pitter patter,” which is both alliterative and consonant. Repetition of sounds in quick succession creates a sense of rhythm, but overloading on alliteration, consonance, and assonance can make poetry harder to read. This is sometimes done on purpose, in the case of tongue twisters, but should generally be avoided.
To incorporate these devices in your poetry, think about what kind of sounds mirror your subject: Could it use more suspicious, sexy S sounds; some languid L sounds; hard sounds; or soft sounds? Close-read your own writing, looking for lines that really work. Is there something about the sounds that makes a line particularly rhythmic? Practice reading your work aloud, noticing if there are places where you stumble or pause, or things really flow together, and see if replacing words to create alliteration, consonance, or assonance changes the way the poem reads.
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