Before we take a look at famous examples of alliteration in poems, find at where you are in your process of understanding:
- Know the definition: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words. Simply knowing the definition, however, is not sufficient.
- You should be able to identify examples of alliteration in poems on your own. This, however, has little usefulness outside of an English class.
- You should be able to explain the purpose for the alliteration and analyze how it contributes to the theme of the poem. Now you’re developing critical thinking skills that will improve your thinking, skills that provide a lifetime of benefits.
- You should be able to write poems containing alliteration.
- You should be able to use alliteration in your own writing to communicate more clearly. Now we’re talking mastery. Using alliteration and other literary devices to communicate more clearly brings you closer to being a master of words.
Without further ado… I give you the examples of alliteration:
Example: Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary (1); rare and radiant maiden (11); And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain (notice the deft use of consonance as well) (13); Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, / Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before (19-20).
Analysis: One purpose of alliteration is to draw attention to specific words. When combined with other sound devices–rhyme, assonance, consonance, rhythm, meter, for example–the effect multiplies. In line 1, Poe repeats the w sound, with the last example being weary. Weary also happens to end a couplet, drawing added emphasis to it. The critical reader and thinker, therefore must ask himself, why? The narrator could be weary with life, the reason for which is given throughout the poem; Poe may emphasize the narrator’s weariness as a clue that perhaps he’s fallen asleep and the entire episode is a dream or an hallucination.
Rare and radiant are used to describe the lost Lenore in line 11. A rare and radiant beauty would stand out in a dreary setting such as this, much like the alliteration and assonance of rare and radiant stand out in this line. Two lines later, we return to silken and sad, whose alliterative nature combines with uncertain and rustling--examples of consonance, to wrap the reader much like wind blown curtains would. The final example contains deep, darkness, and doubting paired with dares and dreams, highlighting the hopelessness the narrator feels.
Example: He held him
Analysis: The repetition of the alliterative phrase “He held him” draws attention to the power possessed by the ancient mariner. It’s curious that the mariner could not successfully hold the wedding guest with his hand, yet succeeded to hold him with his eyes.
Example: And while the world laughed outside. / Cloony the Clown sat down and cried.
Analysis: Shel Silverstein provides numerous alliteration examples in his poems, including the last two lines of “Cloony the Clown.” He finishes this poem with an ironic couplet, a proper ending to an ironic poem. The focus in the first line of the ending couplet is on world; the focus in the second line is on Clooney himself, highlighting the contrast between what the world expects out of Clooney and what Clooney is able to provide.
Example: Much madness
Analysis: Repeated twice, the alliterative pairing of much and madness encourages the reader to ponder what it means to be mad.
Example: When I see birches bend from left and right… / I like to think some boy’s been swinging them. (1,3)
Analysis: The repetition of the b sound in lines one and three emphasize both the dominant image and the dominant theme of the poem. Frost chooses the image of a bent birch tree to wax nostalgic on the wonders of youth.
Example: One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
Analysis: The alliterative couples short/sleep, wee/wake, and death/die emphasize the shortness of death and the glory of the resurrection.
This post is part of the series: Sound Devices in Poetry Study Guide
Sound Devices and form are powerful tools in the poet’s tool belt. Here’s how the masters use them.