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What Is Alliteration?
Alliteration is the repetition of the same letter sound across the start of several words in a line of text. The word comes from the Latin “littera,” meaning “letter of the alphabet”. The current definition of alliteration has been in use since the 1650s.
In alliteration, the words should flow in quick succession. Think of “wicked witch,” “loose lips” or the tumble of “f” sounds in the line “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,” from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The key is to look for repetition of sounds, not letters. The letter “g,” for example, sounds very different in “giant” than in “gas.: That’s why “gym junkie” is alliterative—but “gym glutton” is not.
It’s not cut and dried, however. Some experts consider letter sounds such as “s” and “sh” similar enough to qualify as alliteration, such as in “sink ships.” It comes down to the ear of the beholder.
In poetry specifically, another key factor in determining alliteration is the poem’s meter. To create that harmonious pattern of alliteration, the repetition of a letter sound must fall at the start of a stressed syllable. Take this example of alliteration from James Thomson’s “The Castle of Indolence” (1748) where the final “l” is included:
Dragging the lazy languid line along
What’s the Difference Between Alliteration, Consonance, and Assonance?
Alliteration almost always refers to the repetition of initial consonant sounds. Some experts exclude vowel sounds from the definition altogether, preferring to think of that as a kind of assonance. Assonance is a related literary term that refers specifically to the repetition of vowel sounds, be they in the beginning, middle or end of words.
Another related term is consonance—the equivalent repetition of consonant sounds in successive words. Alliteration is considered a subcategory of consonance since it refers only to sounds repeated at the beginning of words.
These literary devices can be used alone or in combination to enliven poetry, prose or spoken speech.
3 Ways Alliteration Is Used in Poetry
- The main reason to use alliteration in poetry is that it sounds pleasing. It’s a means to get the attention of readers or listeners. It’s also a clear way to signify that the alliterative words are linked together thematically, and it puts a spotlight on the subject contained therein.
- The second use of alliteration in poetry is to build mood. While a wide array of words could theoretically be used to describe any subject, certain letter sounds have specific connotations, and the act of repetition enhances that effect. Think of the “s” sounds in “silt,” “seas” and “silver.” It almost makes words sound whispered, and it can evoke an air of mystery, solemness or intimacy, depending on the context. In fact, there’s a word for the repetition of this class of letter sound—it’s called sibilance, and it also applies to the consonants starting “ship,” “zip,” “chasm,” “genre” and “jealous.” The opposite can be said of hard consonant sounds like the “ck” in “cat” or the “g” in “good” or “plosives” like “b” and “p.” They can be awakening, uplifting or violent.
- The third reason to use alliteration is hinted at by its alternate names—initial rhyme or head rhyme. As with perfect rhyme, alliteration lends verse some melody and rhythm and imparts a sense of how it should sound read out loud. Since perfect rhyme is not hugely popular in contemporary poetry, alliteration—and its siblings, assonance and consonance—are handy tools to have in your writing kit.
Examples of Alliteration in Poetry
Alliteration is one of the most consistently used poetic devices in history, with instances dating back to the birth of the English language. One of the most famous poems to feature it heavily is Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1845):
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping.
This is an effective use of alliteration, all the more so because it is restrained. Poe uses alliteration on just pairs of words, but by doing so again and again over consecutive lines, he creates rhythm and urgency. Later in the poem, he takes a more absolute approach:
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.
Many alliterative phrases can be found in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1834):
The fair breeze blow, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
And in “Birches” by Robert Frost (1916):
They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
This one is particularly notable because of the feeling those creaking “cr” sounds and rustling “sh” sounds conjure to go with the imagery of birch trees heaving with snow.
Here is “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” by Emily Dickinson (1896):
I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm
And “The Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou:
The free bird thinks of another breeze
And the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
The pair of “b” sounds in the first line serve to accentuate the subject. The second line, meanwhile, is particularly pleasing because of the parallelism in its structure, with two “s” words appearing back to back and a “t” word just outside of them.
Everyday Examples of Alliteration
Alliteration is one poetic device that truly makes it into the everyday. You’ll find it in news headlines, TV show titles, advertising slogans and business names. Coca-Cola, Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme and Weight Watchers are just a few catchy alliteration examples.
Here’s another instance you’ll have surely come across, at least in childhood:
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
This phrase, part of a nursery rhyme, is a well-known tongue twister. In fact, most tongue twisters heavily involve alliteration. Here’s a few more:
She sells sea shells by the sea shore
Betty Botter bought a bit of butter, but she said, this butter's bitter; if I put it in my batter, it will make my batter bitter, but a bit of better butter will make my bitter batter better.
The fact that alliteration is a cornerstone of these word games should be a warning to writers to use alliteration in moderation. A few judicious repetitions enrich your language—but insert too many and you’ll have a tongue twister on your hands.
Learn more about the literary devices used in poetry from acclaimed poet and former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.