Definition of Alliteration

Alliteration is the of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words that are in close proximity to each other. This repetition of sounds brings attention to the lines in which it is used, and creates more aural . In poems, alliteration can also refer to repeated consonant sound in the stressed syllables of a line. For example, in Shakespeare’s 30, we find the line “Then can I grieve at grievances foregone.” In this case, the “g” sound is alliterative in “grieve”, “grievances”, and “foregone”, since the stressed syllable in “foregone” starts with “g”.

Alliteration has been used as a literary device in the English language for many hundreds of years, prevalent in works of literature all the way back to Beowulf, the eighth-century Old English poem. Alliteration is most common in poems, though it can be found in and as well. It is often used in the real world in things like nursery rhymes, famous speeches, and advertising slogans.

Note that alliteration is dependent on the beginning sound and not the beginning letter. For example, “cat” is not alliterative with “choice”, but is alliterative with “kick”. Historically, alliteration has also included consonants with similar properties like the sibilants “s” and “z”.

Difference Between Alliteration, Assonance, and Consonance

Alliteration, , and are all similar in that they contain repetitions of certain sounds.

Common Examples of Alliteration

Many common tongue twisters contain examples of alliteration. For instance:

Many famous speeches have contained examples of alliteration. For example:

Advertisers often make use of alliteration so as to help customers remember certain companies and their products. For example:

Examples of Alliteration in Literature

Example #1

He was four times a father, this fighter prince:
one by one they entered the world,
Heorogar, Hrothgar, the good Halga
and a daughter, I have heard, who was Onela´s queen,
a balm in bed to the battle-scarred Swede.

(Beowulf as translated by Seamus Heaney)

The epic poem Beowulf contains examples of alliteration in almost every line. In Old English, alliteration was particularly important, especially as a way of passing down the tradition of oral storytelling. Alliteration was one of the key tools for making the works memorable enough to be told over and over again. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney translated Beowulf with special attention paid to both the rhythm of the original poem and to the use of alliteration. In just this short excerpt, we can see many repeated sounds, all highlighted in red. In the first line, the “f” sound is repeated in “four”, “father”, and “fighter”. The three sons’ names all start the “h” sound—Heorogar, Hrothgar, and Halga. Naming children in an alliterative manner was a popular tradition at the time. In the final line we see repetition of the “b” sound in “balm”, “bed”, and “battle”. These words provide a between “balm” to “battle”, and the use of alliteration highlights their .

Example #2

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes;
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare used alliteration very frequently in his plays and poetry. In this to Act I of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare uses alliteration in the “f” sound of “from”, “forth”, “fatal”, and “foes”; he also alliterates the “l” sound in “loins”, “lovers”, and “life”. In this alliteration example, the words beginning with the “f” sound are united as words of death and destruction—“fatal” and “foes”—while the words beginning with “l” are all connected to the continuity of life, including “loins” and “lovers”. The alliteration thereby weaves these opposing images together.

Example #3

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

(“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -” by Emily Dickinson)

In this famous poem by Emily Dickinson, the alliteration of “st” connects the words “stillness” and “storm”. Conceptually, these two words are at odds, and yet in context Dickinson is referring to the calm that occurs in the middle of storms, such as the eye of the hurricane. The stillness at those times is more profound than at other times, and this connection between stillness and storm is highlighted by her use of alliteration.

Example #4

They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—

(“Birches” by Robert Frost)

In this excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem “Birches” we can find several instances of the “cr” sound: “cracks”, “crazes”, “crystal”, and “crust”. This use of alliteration is onomatopoetic in that the “cr” sound mimics the sound of ice breaking and trees knocking against each other. Frost creates the feel of a forest of birch trees not only through images, but also in the words he uses to create an aural representation of the sound of the trees.

Example #5

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe’s long and dark poem “The Raven” contains many examples of alliteration. He creates rhythm and musicality in the poem in many different ways, notably through and repetition. Alliteration plays a very large role in creating this rhythm as well, as the vast majority of the one hundred and eight lines in this poem contain some sort of repeated consonant sound. In this excerpt, Poe repeats the “d” sound in “deep”, “darkness”, “doubting”, “dreaming”, “dreams”, “dared”, and “dream”.