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What Is Consonance?
Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant sounds in a line of text. These alike sounds can appear anywhere in the word, but will usually be found at its end or middle, or at the end of the stressed syllable. What’s vital is that the repetition occurs in quick succession, as in:
twist and shout
Sibilance is a subcategory of consonance. It is used to distinguish repeated consonant sounds that have a hushing or hissing quality, chiefly “s” and “sh,” such as in “uncertain rustling.”
The etymology of consonance is from the Latin “consonantem,” meaning “agreeing in sound.” The current definition of consonance as a literary device is thought to have been in use since the 1580s.
Since consonance is often used at the ends of words to make them sound similar, it is an important device in the creation of half rhyme—a looser rhyming approach seen in many poems as well as rap and hip-hop music.
How Is Consonance Used in Poetry?
Poets frequently use consonance for the simple reason that it makes an arrangement of words more interesting and appealing to listeners. It intensifies the language.
If someone is reading a poem that utilizes consonance, they might be drawn to go back and reread consonance-laced words, or linger over them for longer—a good outcome in poetry, where a single line is sometimes closely packed with meanings that need to be teased out.
Consonance and Half-Rhyme
Use of consonance can also create a rhyming effect and give a verse musicality. It is a key ingredient in what’s known as “half-rhyme,” where words sound similar but fall short of a perfect rhyme.
This form of rhyme is also known as “slant rhyme,” “imperfect rhyme” or sometimes even “lazy rhyme.” Contrary to what those monikers suggest, it can make for rich and sophisticated verse. Compared to when writing in perfect rhyme, poets taking this looser approach can draw from a much wider pool of complementary words, creating intrigue and surprise.
Consonance and Emotion in Poetry
Consonance is one of several poetic devices that can be used to heighten emotion or enhance an image in poetry. Some consonant sounds have immediate connotations. Think of the “s” sounds in sibilance—they often make words sound almost more whispered. The consonants at the beginning of “ship,” “zip,” “charm,” “genre” and “jewel” also have this effect.
Depending on the context, they can evoke an air of mystery, solemness, sleepiness, or intimacy. The opposite is true of hard consonant sounds like the “ck” in “cat” or the “g” in “good” or “plosives” like “b” and “p.”
Common Examples of Consonance in Poetry
The repetition of sounds appeals to our ears so much that you can find consonance examples in common pairings of words throughout the English language. Consider:
First and last
Odds and ends
Short and sweet
Struts and frets (from Shakespeare’s Macbeth)
Front and center
A little better
Along with alliteration, consonance is also part of what makes tongue twisters so tricky. Take one of the most well-known examples:
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
The alliteration might be what’s most noticeable about this phrase, but it’s the dense pack of “k” sounds that often trips people up—and makes it fun to say.
Examples of Consonance in Poetry
The power of consonance becomes evident when reading works of poetry. Take this example from Robert Frost’s “Out-Out” (1916):
The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
The consistent “d” sounds create rhythm and unity in this poem, while the “L” sounds in the first line add to a sense of atmosphere.
Another example is in Emily Dickinson’s “Poem 315” (1862):
Your breath has time to straighten,
Your brain to bubble cool,
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.
The “L” sounds at the end of the words “cool” and “soul” form a slant rhyme.
This is from George Wither’s “Shall I Wasting in Despair” (1617):
Great, or good, or kind, or fair, I will ne’er the more despair;
If she love me, this believe,
I will die ere she shall grieve;
If she slight me when I woo,
I can scorn and let her go;
For if she be not for me,
What care I for whom she be?
There are a few repeated consonant sounds here, including “d” and “f”, but it’s the “r” sounds that unify the stanza—and, in fact, the whole poem.
Examples of Consonance in Popular Culture
Consonance examples can be found in many song lyrics, but especially rap and hip-hop music. Lyrics in these genres often feature many imperfect internal rhymes in fast succession. The emphasis is on rhythm, cadence and the “flow” of words, so a loose similarity of sound is more important than strict rhyming.
A good example is in “Zealots” (1996) by The Fugees:
Rap rejects my tape deck, ejects projectile
Whether Jew or gentile, I rank top percentile
Note how the repeated “eck” sound in the first line creates a rhythm and a rhyming effect. Here’s another classic from “Dream Shatterer” (1988) by Big Pun:
It's Big Pun! The one and only son of Tony, Montana
You ain't promised manana in the rotten manzana
C'mon pana, we need more rhymers
The rapper was known for his complex lyrics with minimal pauses for breath—something that’s evident in the above lines.
Learn more about the literary devices used in poetry from acclaimed poet and former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.