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What Is Assonance?
Assonance, or “vowel rhyme,” is the repetition of vowel sounds across a line of text or poetry. The words have to be near enough to each other that the similar vowel sounds are noticeable.
Think about the long “o” sound in:
Go slow on the road
Or the short “e” sound in:
Sell the wedding bells
Usually, but not always, the recurring vowel sounds will be in the middle of words that start and end with different consonants. For example, “I’m reminded to line the lid of my eye" contains many long “I” sounds, some at the start of words, some in the middle and some containing the word entirely. Each use still contributes to the assonant effect.
The etymology of assonance is the Latin “assonare,” meaning “to sound.” Today’s definition of assonance has been in use since the 1800s.
How Is Assonance Used in Poetry?
The chief function of assonance in poetry is to create rhythm. It guides which syllables should be stressed.
This rhythm-making has a flow-on effect. It helps to embed a set of words within the mind of whoever is hearing them—that’s part of what makes proverbs like “there’s no place like home” so catchy.
Assonance can also help to build a mood. Long vowel sounds are said to slow down a segment of writing, making it more somber, and the “oo” sound in particular can be quite gloomy or spooky. Short vowel sounds are usually more sprightly, particularly the “I” that flits and skips.
After centuries where rhyme reigned supreme in English verse, assonance, consonance and alliteration are now more in favor in contemporary poetry. They are considered more subtle than rhyme. However, just like any literary devices, they can lose their potency when overused, so you will need to apply assonance in moderation.
Examples of Assonance in Poetry
Many famous poems showcase assonance examples. One of the most cited is William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (1804):
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
The many long “o” sounds cohere the first four lines of this poem, while the recurring “ee” sounds signal a tonal shift. Another example of assonance is in Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1922):
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
While Frost heavily uses rhyme, the addition of assonance adds to the heightened atmosphere of the poem. Edgar Allen Poe frequently employed assonance, including in “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,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Here are some short but potent examples. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Feast of Famine” (1890):
And from all around the haven the crumbling thunder of seas
With its melancholy short “u” sounds, “crumbling thunder” is a particularly evocative use of assonance—and one that’s also onomatopoeic (meaning it sounds like the thing it’s describing).
Another, in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” (1962):
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you.
There’s a sharpness and a staccato to “Daddy,” including in the stabbing quality of these repeated short “a” sounds.
And in Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The mother” (1945), notice how assonance helps direct the rhythm of these words:
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
Examples of Assonance in Popular Culture
It is perhaps no surprise that this popular poetic device is also common in song lyrics. A good example is in the 1977 rock song “With Love” by Thin Lizzy:
I must confess that in my quest, I felt depressed and restless.
Here, assonance and consonance combine to create a memorable line. However, assonance really comes to the fore in rap and hip-hop. These genres of music prize the “flow” of words—their rhythm and cadence—so a loose similarity of sound is more important than strict rhyming.
Song lyrics will often contain multiple imperfect internal rhymes, built on devices like assonance. Sometimes, a rapper or singer will emphasize common vowel sounds to the point where assonant words sound as if they really do rhyme.
Take this well-known example from “Lose Yourself” by Eminem:
Oh, there goes Rabbit, he choked
He’s so mad, but he won’t give up that easy, no
He won’t have it, he knows his whole back’s to these ropes
It don’t matter, he’s dope.
Or this one from “Good Kid” by Kendrick Lamar:
Trapped inside your desire to fire bullets that stray
Track attire just tell you I’m tired and ran away
I should ask a choice “What do you require
To sing a song that acquire me to have faith?”
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip hop-inflected Broadway musical Hamilton has been hugely praised for its complex, layered use of assonance and other devices. Look at just how frequently the “ee” vowel sound is repeated in just these few words from the song “My Shot”:
I know the action in the street is excitin’
But Jesus, between all the bleedin’ ‘n’ fightin’
I’ve been readin’ and writin’
Other Examples of Assonance
You can also find assonance throughout proverbs in the English language. It makes sense, since assonance makes a phrase more likely to stick in the first place. Think about:
The early bird catches the worm.
Let the cat out of the bag.
A stitch in time saves nine.
While assonance has made these sayings memorable, it’s also made it into some tongue twisters:
Peter Pepper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
She sells seashells by the seashore.
Alliteration is the more obvious feature of these tricky sentences, but the repeated short “e” and long “ee” sounds add to the challenge of saying them out loud.
Learn more about the literary devices used in poetry from acclaimed poet and former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.