By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Alliteration is arguably the king of the sound-effects in poetry. It’s defined by the OED as ‘the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words, especially when employed for stylistic effect’.
However, ‘sound’ is perhaps a more important, and more helpful, word here than ‘letter’. Two words may begin with the same letter but not sound the same, and we cannot really speak of these as ‘alliteration’ in the commonly understood sense.
For example, the name George Galloway (the name of an eighteenth-century poet as well as a twenty-first-century politician!) comprises two names beginning with the same letter, but as they are pronounced differently (as ‘Jorge Galloway’, if you will), few people would say they were a shining example of alliteration.
By contrast, the phrase ‘pneumatic nylon knickers’ might well qualify as alliteration, even though every single word in the phrase begins with a different letter. Since they all sound the same, they are alliterative. And it is sound that poets are concerned with, in the main.
Below, we select and introduce ten classic poems which contain some of the best and most powerful examples of alliteration. The effects created by these alliterative lines or phrases vary from poem to poem, but those effects are all made possible, at least in part, by the poetic power of alliteration (see what we did there?).
1. Anonymous, ‘Fowls in the Frith’.
Foweles in the frith,
The fisses in the flod,
And I mon waxe wod.
Sulch sorw I walke with
For beste of bon and blod.
Let’s begin our alliterative odyssey back in the thirteenth century with this haunting five-line lyric (whose meaning remains elusive). Every single line contains an example of alliteration, with objects being joined through their sounds (those ‘foweles’ or birds in the ‘frith’ or wood; the ‘fisses’ or fishes in the ‘flod’ or sea).
Ultimately, the speaker appears to turn to himself: that ‘beste’ (beast?) made of ‘bon’ and ‘blod’ who is full of ‘Sulch’ (such) ‘sorw’ (sorrow).
2. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 43.
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me …
The greatest poet in the world knew how to use alliteration, as this little but lesser-known gem from the Sonnets demonstrates. The alliteration here sometimes stretches across the line (‘By looking on thee in the living day’), while the early part of the sonnet contains plenty of straightforward repetition (‘Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright, / How would thy shadow’s form form happy show’).
3. John Donne, ‘Death, Be Not Proud’.
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
In this defiant sonnet, one of the ‘Holy Sonnets’ Donne (1572-1631) wrote after he had joined the Church of England later in his life, Donne concludes with this alliterative couplet that tells Death just where to go. Death may think ‘he’ has dominion over man, but Donne believes he can kill Death himself.
4. Charlotte Smith, ‘Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening’.
All is black shadow but the lucid line
Marked by the light surf on the level sand,
Or where afar the ship-lights faintly shine
Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land
Misled the pilgrim – such the dubious ray
That wavering reason lends in life’s long darkling way …
Let’s continue our alliterative adventure in the late eighteenth century. ‘Written Near a Port on a Dark Evening’ is a sonnet whose title explains the location (we are near a sea-port or harbour) and the time of day (evening). The poem contains a number of features which would come to be associated with Romanticism, but Smith (1749-1806) was writing before Wordsworth and Coleridge arrived on the scene with their Lyrical Ballads in 1798.
The poem is filled with alliteration which conveys the movement of the waves against the cliff: those ‘billows’ – the spume or foam from the sea – crash upon the rocks with such energy that they create a ‘repercussive roar’ as they strike the stones. Smith’s alliteration, which returns in ‘rugged’ and ‘rocks remote’, suggests the roaring sound of the water on the rocks.
5. William Blake, ‘The Tyger’.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Here’s a poem which begins with not one but two examples of alliteration within its very first line. There’s an incantatory power to Blake’s rhythms in this 1794 poem, with the subject of the poem – the fearsome tiger whose stripes seem to have been forged in some divine fire – repeated twice before the heavy plosive alliteration of ‘burning bright’ reinforces this fiery focus.
6. Emily Dickinson, ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’.
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
This poem is awash with alliterative lines and phrases, and – like the Donne poem – takes death as its subject. But this being an Emily Dickinson poem, she offers her own singular and idiosyncratic take on the topic, with Death here pulling up outside ready to take her away.
7. Thomas Hardy, ‘The Voice’.
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling …
This classic poem by Thomas Hardy, written about the death of his first wife Emma in 1912, is beautifully attentive to the sounds of words, and the power of sound is at the heart of this elegy for a lost love, as the title makes clear.
Look at how ‘faltering forward’ captures the poet’s struggle to come to terms with his loss, while the penultimate line combines alliteration with assonance in the memorable phrase ‘oozing thin through the thorn from norward’.
8. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘Dawn’.
All glowing from his dreamless rest
He holds her closely to his breast,
Warm lip to lip and limb to limb,
Until she dies for love of him.
The American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) is not usually lauded as a great poet, but she could write not just good bad poems, but even positively good ones.
‘Dawn’ is a tender depiction of the moment daylight begins to take over from the darkness of night, with alliteration (‘Warm lip to lip and limb to limb’) helping to convey the languid and soft movement of the light as it kisses the night.
9. Wilfred Owen, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons …
One of the greatest poems of the First World War, Owen’s sonnet powerfully captures the horrors of warfare to underscore the gulf between the pitiless violence of battle and the dignity and respect the brave soldiers deserve.
Onomatopoeia works alongside alliteration in a phrase like ‘stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’, while later examples in the poem, such as ‘sad shires’, almost audibly sigh with wistfulness.
10. Langston Hughes, ‘Harlem’.
A leading light of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, Langston Hughes (1901-67) often wrote about the area of New York he knew so well.
‘Harlem’ is a very short lyric (which we have analysed in more depth here), beginning with the harsh alliteration of ‘Does it dry up’ before giving way to the enticing softness of ‘syrupy sweet’, as Hughes explores that elusive notion of ‘the American dream’ in relation to the African-American experience.