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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.

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5 thoughts on “Alliteration”

  1. Alliteration works just as powerfully in prose as in poetry, though it isn’t always registered as such by the reader.

    Regarding your example, I don’t think repeating the same word really qualifies as rhyme, alliteration, consonance or assonance; it’s just repetition. How about “pitter patter raindrops” as an example of consonance (and indeed, alliteration)?

  2. Cecily,

    Thanks for your comments. I do take your point about simple repetition; it’s an interesting question. As I see it, the brain does register the repeated sounds in, say, “Water, water” or “Tiger, tiger” so that there is an alliterative (etc.) effect. But, as the same time, it does feel a bit like you’re being cheated.

  3. Can you count the ‘w’ in ‘everywhere’ as alliterating with the ‘w’ in ‘water’. Although it’s not at the start of the word it seems (to my ear) to be on the stressed syllable.

    Also, a good example of alliteration in poetry can be found in W H Auden’s ‘Age of Anxiety’:

    If you blush, I’ll build breakwaters.
    When you’re tired, I’ll tidy your table.
    If you cry, I’ll climb crags.
    When you’re sick, I’ll sit at your side.
    If you frown, I’ll fence fields.
    When you’re ashamed, I’ll shine your shoes.
    If you laugh, I’ll liberate lands.
    When you’re depressed, I’ll play you the piano.
    If you sigh, I’ll sack cities.
    When you’re unlucky, I’ll launder your linen.
    If you sing, I’ll save souls.
    When you’re hurt, I’ll hold your hand.
    If you smile, I’ll smelt silver.
    When you’re afraid, I’ll fetch you food.
    If you talk, I’ll track down trolls.
    When you’re on edge, I’ll empty your ash-tray.
    If you whisper, I’ll wage wars.
    When you’re cross, I’ll clean your coat.
    If you whistle, I’ll water wastes.
    When you’re bored, I’ll bathe your brows.

  4. NB,

    I think you could argue the terminology either way – but whether or not the “w” at the start of a stressed syllable in the middle of a word counts as alliteration, I’d say what really matters is the poetic effect, the musicality of the repeated sounds. The terminology is just there so we can describe these effects.

    The Auden poem is, indeed, a good illustration of alliteration – although it’s always seemed a bit gimmicky and forced to me.

  5. Alliterative prose can be fun. In my recent work, “The Wind Whispers Through Pine Trees,” I inadvertantly used alliteration numerous times, including: wind whispers; melancholy murmur; soft, sibilant, siren’s call; sullen snow; swirls…sleeping; caps…crown; darkening…dispassionate; rusted, disused railroad tracks; black basin brimming with baby’s blood; serpent slain; spell scrawled on a scroll made from a maiden’s skin; who weaves the words; hearts that have long been stilled stay grave-silent; muffled voices moaning; shroud of snow, pallid and pale as a bleached bone; dead fingers spiny with splinters… There are other examples, but those will suffice. I hadn’t even realized I was being alliterative until I read this to my writer’s critique group and it was called to my attention. Perhaps the alliteration is a reason this piece has been one of my favorite “children.”

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