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A Simple Guide to the Poetic Technique of Alliteration

Author:

Centfie writes, reads and analyzes poems from a psychological POV. See her book on Amazon: "Piece of Mind: Everyone has an Untold Story."

What is Alliteration?

On a wider scope, alliteration is a literary technique of both sound and repetition. It involves the repetition of sounds.

The word alliteration is derived from the Latin word "Latira" often translated to mean "letters next to each other."

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds in consecutive words, or words appearing at close intervals in a stanza or line. For the best effect, the poet repeats stressed initial sound in words that are next to each other.

Some poems have unintended alliteration that occurs naturally as the poet writes. Hence, it might not add value to the poem apart from the sound effect.

However, if a poet uses intended alliteration it can have a powerful effect to bother the meaning and structure of a poem.

the-poetic-device-of-alliteration

Spot alliteration in the title of John McCrae's classical poem "In Flanders Fields."

The repetition of the sound "f" in the words Flanders and Fields create alliteration because the same sound occurs consecutively.

But it doesn't always have to be consecutive as in the following line in the same poem:

We are the dead. Short days ago. (Line 6)

(the bold typeset is for emphasis only, and is not part of the original poem.)

Say the line aloud and listen to the initial consonant sound in the words "dead" and "days." Although they are not consecutive, this still counts as alliteration because the words appear at close intervals, and produce an alliterative effect.

However, alliteration is stronger when the words appear successively, rather than when there are other words between the alliterative words.

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds in consecutive words, or words appearing at close intervals in a stanza or line.

Examples of Alliteration

Here are more examples of alliteration excerpted from the poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae.

Between the crosses, row on row, (line 2)

That mark our place; and in the sky (line 3)

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow (line 7)

Loved and were loved, and now we lie (line 8)

The torch; be yours to hold it high. (line 12)

Have you spotted the alliteration in the above examples? Here is the list of alliterative words as appearing in the above lines respectively:

row-row

that-the

saw-sunset

loved-loved-lie & were-we

torch-to & hold-high

The emphasis is on the repetitive unit sound produced by the letter rather than the letter itself. The consonants can be different but produce the same sound. Therefore, when identifying or using alliteration, be keen on the consonant sounds created.

See the example below:

A quick cat never lets you know its mind,

Here both pairs of q and c, then n and kn form similar sounds even though the initial letters are different.

Keeps it cautious purring motor on the thrum

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A similar alliteration appears on this line in the highlighted words although different consonants have the same sound.

While cities sleep fortune fails

There is regular alliteration of the same letter and the same sound in "fortune fails" and there is also different consonants and the same sound as in "cities sleep."

The Importance of Alliteration in Poetry.

To illustrate the importance of alliteration, let's use a poem that has a heavy and deliberate use of alliteration known as "The Bells," written by Edgar Allan Poe. The poem draws a lot of attention to its sound effect.

  • Makes a poem fun to read

Repeating initial consonant sounds in quick succession produce a pleasing and artistic effect appealing to the ear when the poem is read aloud.

Hear the sledges with the bells—
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!

  • Emphasizing keywords

A poet can use alliteration to draw attention to specific words that may have a rhetorical purpose, hence emphasizing the meaning of the specific line or poem.

Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,

  • Creates other literary devices

Alliteration exemplifies other literary techniques such as onomatopoeia (words to represent sounds made); epizeuxis (the same word repeated successively); and cacophony— when harsh consonant sounds like t and k are repeated. When consonant sounds are at beginning of words appearing close together, the devices above coexist with alliteration.

There is onomatopoeia, epizeuxis, and cacophony in the following alliterative line:

How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,

See also:

Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

  • Humor

When used intentionally by a poet, it can imply humor or playfulness, especially when the consonant sounds are overly repetitive. Alliteration can also be humorous when it creates tongue twisters. (The phrase "tongue twister" applies alliteration!)

And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
Rolls

  • Memorability

Alliteration makes it easy for the reader to remember the poem as it becomes a trigger for remembering it when the poem stands out because of the repetitive sounds appearing at the beginning of words.

Try reading the complete poem; "The Bells" by Edgar Allan Poe, and see for how memorable the alliterative words are!

Take a look at your poems or a favorite poem or song and identify instances of alliteration. Do you think the alliteration was intentional? Does the alliteration serve any purpose in the piece?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Centfie

Comments

Centfie (author) from Kenya on April 22, 2021:

Exactly Ravi. Thanks for taking your time to read my article.

Centfie (author) from Kenya on April 22, 2021:

Thank you for reading, John.

Ravi Rajan from Mumbai on April 21, 2021:

a interesting technique that can be really used effectively to bring the "wow" and "stress" effect in any poem. Thanks for sharing centfie.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on April 21, 2021:

An interesting and helpful article clearly explaining alliteration with excellent examples. Thank you for sharing, Centfie.

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