A couple of previous Daily Writing Tips posts looked at when to use rhyme in poetry and also at the various types of rhyme available to the poet. Rhyme, however, is only one of the techniques employed in poetry to make its language special. Another basic one is alliteration.
Alliteration is defined by the Compact Oxford Dictionary as :
The occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words.
For example, these lines are from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” :
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
Here, the w sounds in the first and third lines alliterate, as do the d sounds of “drop” and “drink” in the fourth.
Alliteration is just one technique employed by poets, who combine it as needed with rhyme, rhythm, imagery and so forth. It’s another way to give a poem structure, to mark out its language as special and musical. The ear will tend to pay special attention to alliterated syllables, and to hear a connection between them.
It’s worth noting that in Old English or Anglo Saxon poetry, alliteration was the principal structural technique. There was no regular rhyme or rhythm – instead, poetry was (generally) written so that lines contained four stresses, the first three of which alliterated. There was no attempt to create end-rhymes or even to have lines of the same length. The following lines, for example, are from Beowulf (as translated by Seamus Heaney) :
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
In the first line, three sh and s sounds are stressed and (loosely) alliterate (Shield/Sheafson/scourge). In the second line, it’s the m sounds (mead/rampaging/among).
Two other related techniques to be aware of in relation to alliteration are assonance and consonance. Assonance is similar to alliteration except that it refers to repeated vowel-sounds rather than repeated consonant-sounds. For example, there is the repeated ur sound in this line from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” :
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Consonance, finally, is very similar to alliteration. Strictly speaking, repeated consonant-sounds at the start of words are alliteration, and repeated consonant-sounds in the middle of words are consonance. Thus in the line “Water, water, everywhere”, Coleridge has used both alliteration and consonance.
The next in this series of poetry-related posts, meanwhile, will look at metre. Stay tuned.