Alliteration and Other Matters of Sound in Poetry and Prose

If you are new to writing poetry, there is a strong likelihood that you spend most of your time making sure that each line rhymes. But, rhyme isn’t the only device that can be used to make sure that a poem sounds as good as it can.

In fact, it isn’t even specifically necessary that a poem rhymes at all. It might surprise you to learn that most modern poetry styles ignore rhyme all together. Instead they focus on creating a poetic structure through the use of sound. The two most beneficial ways to do this are through alliteration and assonance.

What is Alliteration and Where Is it Used

Alliteration is simply the joining of similar or identical consonant sounds. If you think back to your childhood, you likely have some familiarity with alliteration through tongue-twisters like “Peter Piper picked a pack of pickled pepper,” where the ‘p’ sound is repeated over and over. This sound, as well as the sound ‘f’ can be represented in writing in different ways by different letters. For example, you may choose to join sounds made by ‘ph’ and by ‘f’. If you are unable to locate a suitable word that starts with an identical sound, you could try for things like “f” and ‘th’.

Alliteration is most often used in poetry. It adds a special musical quality to a poem, enhancing its rhythm and flow and making it more beautiful, as well as more memorable. Alliteration is found even in early medieval pieces of poetry, such as Beowulf. Edgar Poe often used alliteration in his poems, the most well-known examples are found in The Raven.

Alliteration is commonplace in prose. For example, it might be seen in newspaper headings when they want the audience to remember them. If a lot of alliteration is used. If alliteration is used too intensely, it might create a comedic effect, however, this could be used advantageously as well. If you do use a lot of alliteration, it is crucial to find balance.

Alliteration seldom depends on specific sounds being at the start of a word, however, they are typically in a stressed position, like the ‘c’ in implication. Certain sounds can be manipulated to add depth to your poetry. Consider how Gollum in the Lord of the Rings uses extra ‘s’ sounds to make him appear disturbing and cunning.

Here is an example of alliteration in poetry.

Cloony the Clown by Shel Silverstein

I’ll tell you the story of Cloony the Clown
Who worked in a circus that came through town.
His shoes were too big and his hat was too small,
But he just wasn’t, just wasn’t funny at all.
He had a trombone to play loud silly tunes,
He had a green dog and a thousand balloons.
He was floppy and sloppy and skinny and tall,
But he just wasn’t, just wasn’t funny at all.
And every time he did a trick,
Everyone felt a little sick.
And every time he told a joke,
Folks sighed as if their hearts were broke.
And every time he lost a shoe,
Everyone looked awfully blue.
And every time he stood on his head,
Everyone screamed, “Go back to bed!”
And every time he made a leap,
Everybody fell asleep.
And every time he ate his tie,
Everyone began to cry.
And Cloony could not make any money
Simply because he was not funny.
One day he said, “I’ll tell this town
How it feels to be an unfunny clown.”
And he told them all why he looked so sad,
And he told them all why he felt so bad.
He told of Pain and Rain and Cold,
He told of Darkness in his soul,
And after he finished his tale of woe,
Did everyone cry? Oh no, no, no,
They laughed until they shook the trees
With “Hah-Hah-Hahs” and “Hee-Hee-Hees.”
They laughed with howls and yowls and shrieks,
They laughed all day, they laughed all week,
They laughed until they had a fit,
They laughed until their jackets split.
The laughter spread for miles around
To every city, every town,
Over mountains, ‘cross the sea,
From Saint Tropez to Mun San Nee.
And soon the whole world rang with laughter,
Lasting till forever after,
While Cloony stood in the circus tent,
With his head drooped low and his shoulders bent.
And he said,”THAT IS NOT WHAT I MEANT –
I’M FUNNY JUST BY ACCIDENT.”
And while the world laughed outside.
Cloony the Clown sat down and cried.

Another excellent example of alliteration in poetry is Part one of Rime of the Ancient Marine by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

It is an ancient Mariner,

And he stoppeth one of three.

‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,

Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,

And I am next of kin;

The guests are met, the feast is set:

May’st hear the merry din.’

He holds him with his skinny hand,

‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.

‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’

Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

He holds him with his glittering eye—

The Wedding-Guest stood still,

And listens like a three years’ child:

The Mariner hath his will.

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:

He cannot choose but hear;

And thus spake on that ancient man,

The bright-eyed Mariner.

‘The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,

Merrily did we drop

Below the kirk, below the hill,

Below the lighthouse top.

The Sun came up upon the left,

Out of the sea came he!

And he shone bright, and on the right

Went down into the sea.

Higher and higher every day,

Till over the mast at noon—’

The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,

For he heard the loud bassoon.

The bride hath paced into the hall,

Red as a rose is she;

Nodding their heads before her goes

The merry minstrelsy.

The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,

Yet he cannot choose but hear;

And thus spake on that ancient man,

The bright-eyed Mariner.

And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he

Was tyrannous and strong:

He struck with his o’ertaking wings,

And chased us south along.

With sloping masts and dipping prow,

As who pursued with yell and blow

Still treads the shadow of his foe,

And forward bends his head,

The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,

And southward aye we fled.

And now there came both mist and snow,

And it grew wondrous cold:

And ice, mast-high, came floating by,

As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts

Did send a dismal sheen:

Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—

The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around:

It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,

Like noises in a swound!

At length did cross an Albatross,

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Thorough the fog it came;

As if it had been a Christian soul,

We hailed it in God’s name.

It ate the food it ne’er had eat,

And round and round it flew.

The ice did split with a thunder-fit;

The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;

The Albatross did follow,

And every day, for food or play,

Came to the mariner’s hollo!

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,

It perched for vespers nine;

Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,

Glimmered the white Moon-shine.’

‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!

From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—

Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow

I shot the ALBATROSS.

Other Matters of Sound and Their Examples

Alliteration isn’t the only sound device you might come across in a poem. There is also assonance. Why exactly is assonance?

Assonance is the complement to alliteration. Or, more specifically, assonance is the joining of vowels. The sounds that vowels make can be joined together in both high and low sounds, depending on how they are said by the speaker. For example, the ‘I’ in fish is a high sound, where the ‘u’ in bud is a low sound. Typically, assonant effects are created in a poem by joining multiple high vowel sounds with multiple low vowel sounds.

The majority of English speaking people will most commonly associate high vowels with elegant, sophisticated or worldly things, whereas lower vowel sounds will be associated with more common things.

Here is an example of assonance in poetry.

Early Moon by Carl Sandburg

THE BABY moon, a canoe, a silver papoose canoe, sails and sails in the Indian west.
A ring of silver foxes, a mist of silver foxes, sit and sit around the Indian moon.One yellow star for a runner, and rows of blue stars for more runners, keep a line of watchers.
O foxes, baby moon, runners, you are the panel of memory, fire-white writing to-night of the Red Man’s dreams.

Who squats, legs crossed and arms folded, matching its look against the moon-face, the star-faces, of the West?

Who are the Mississippi Valley ghosts, of copper foreheads, riding wiry ponies in the night?-no bridles, love-arms on the pony necks, riding in the night a long old trail?

Why do they always come back when the silver foxes sit around the early moon, a silver papoose, in the Indian west?

Next in the list of sound devices is consonance. If you were to give consonance definition, it would be: A pleasing or satisfying sound created by repeating consonant sounds within lines, phrases or entire poems.

Most often this repetition will be seen at the end of a line, however, it could also be seen at the start.

Shall I Wasting in Despair by George Wither is an excellent example of proper use of consonance in poetry.

Shall I wasting in despair

Die because a woman’s fair?

Or make pale my cheeks with care

‘Cause another’s rosy are?

Be she fairer than the day,

Or the flow’ry meads in May—

If she be not so to me,

What care I how fair she be?

Shall my foolish heart be pined

‘Cause I see a woman kind?

Or a well-disposed nature

Joinèd with a lovely feature?

Be she meeker, kinder, than

Turtle dove or pelican,

If she be not so to me,

What care I how kind she be?

Shall a woman’s virtues move

Me to perish for her love?

Or her merits’ value known

Make me quite forget mine own?

Be she with that goodness blest

Which may gain her name of Best;

If she seem not such to me,

What care I how good she be?

‘Cause her fortune seems too high

Shall I play the fool and die?

Those that bear a noble mind

Where they want of riches find,

Think what with them they would do

That without them dare to woo;

And unless that mind I see,

What care I how great she be?

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?