Assonance & Alliteration


Students may find it useful to assume that both assonance and alliteration involve repeating or echoing—

  • Assonance by the use of vowel sounds;
  • Alliteration by the arrangement of consonants.

Generally speaking, it seems that assonance and alliteration can be used in three different ways:

I.   In order to reproduce a sound that the author is describing. This is, in effect, the creation of onomatopoeia.

pulverulenta fuga glomerant montisque relinquunt
Virgil, Aeneid IV: the crowds of deer flee with rattling hooves.

Dry clash’d his harness in the icy caves
And barren chasms, and all to left and right
The bare black cliff clang’d round him, as he based
His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang
Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels…
Tennyson, Morte d’Arthur: Sir Bedivere carries the King down to the lake.

The murmur of innumerable bees…
Tennyson, Come down, O Maid.

ille malum uirus serpentibus addidit atris…
Virgil, Georgics I.120: the hiss of a snake: ille is Jupiter.

servos suos ad se vocat; his imperat ut se ipsum neglegant, filiam defendant…
Cicero, Verres II.1.67: Philodamus whispering to his slaves.

II.   In order to create a general mood or feeling. This use of vowel sounds is more characteristic of Latin than of English. In the following two examples the mood is one of grief or lamenting. A similar repetition of vowel sounds in English would not be successful and might even sound uncouth; but English treats vowels differently from the Romance languages (see earlier post, The schwa.)

quærens me sedisti lassus,
redemisti crucem passus:
tantus labor non sit cassus.
From the Dies Irae: the walk to Calvary.

ne me terrete timentem,
obscenæ volucres: alarum verbera nosco
letalemque sonum…
Virgil: Aeneid XII.875: Juturna despairing that she cannot save her brother.

Keats, however, attempts to create a feeeling of repose in

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time…
Keats: Ode on a Grecian Urn. 

III.   In order simply to make the words memorable.

veni, vidi, vici.
Julius Caesar attrib.

Phyllosan fortifies the over-forties.
1970s advertisement.

Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena…
Virgil, Eclogues I.1

But the widest use of alliteration is in Old English verse, where J.A.Cuddon calls it ‘a basic part of the structure’ of poems like Beowulf. (A Dictionary of Literary Terms, Penguin Books).

It was still used in Middle English:

In a somer sesoun · when soft was the sonne
I shope me in shroudes · as I a shep were
In habite as an heremite · unholy of werkes
Went wyde in this world · wondres to here…
William Langland, Piers Plowman.
Langland goes on to tell of his falling asleep in the Malvern Hills. This and subsequent visions are told in the same alliterative verse.


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