As metaphors and similes are figures of speech, alliteration is a figure of sound: It links words and ideas together through the repetition of consonants. Learning what alliteration is and how it’s used in poetry can help you delve deeper into a poem’s meaning.
Definition of Alliteration
Alliterating words have stressed syllables that begin with the same consonant sound. For example, the television show title “Breaking Bad” alliterates, because “break” is the stressed syllable in “breaking,” and both “break” and “bad” begin with a “B” sound. Similarly, “expensive socks” alliterates, since the second syllable of “expensive” is the stressed syllable, and it begins with an “S” sound just as “socks” does. In poetry, alliteration creates the strongest effect when it links words next to each other or in the same line, but poets can also use it to tie words and ideas together throughout poems.
Because alliteration is a figure of sound, you won’t always be able to pick it out easily by looking at a printed page. Instead, read the poem aloud several times and underline any words that begin with the same consonant sound. When marking alliteration in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” for instance, you might think that “strange,” “shape,” “suddenly” and “Sun” all alliterate in the lines “When that strange shape drove suddenly/Betwixt us and the Sun.” But “shape” starts with a different consonant sound than the other “S” words do, so an analysis of alliteration in those lines would focus on “strange,” “suddenly” and “Sun.” As another example, Shakespeare’s sonnet 51 speaks of times “When swift extremity can seem but slow.” Visually, the words “swift extremity” don’t seem to alliterate, but their stressed syllables both begin with an “S” sound.
Poems frequently use onomatopoeia with alliteration to create realism and emphasis. Onomatopoeic words imitate the sounds they represent, such as “hush,” “whirr” and “buzz.” Even the first letters of alliterating syllables can have an onomatopoeic effect: A string of words that begin with the “S” sound can be soothing, like a whisper, or disconcerting, like a hiss. For instance, Walt Whitman’s poem “Beat! Beat! Drums” begins each stanza with the line “Beat! beat! drums! -- blow! bugles! blow!” The repeated “B” sounds mimic the noises that the poem is talking about -- the rhythmic thumping and trumpeting of drums and bugles that signal an invasion. Whitman’s stanzas show how these noises themselves “burst like a ruthless force” into all corners of life.
Linking Words and Ideas
Because alliteration can tie dissimilar words together, poets can use it to craft compelling, memorable images that elicit an emotional response. Once you identify alliterating words, consider how the poem uses them together to reinforce central themes, as well as to ask readers to reconsider familiar words in a new context. For example, in “The Bells,” Edgar Allan Poe writes that upon hearing funeral bells, “How we shiver with affright/at the melancholy menace of their tone!” The words “melancholy menace” alliterate with an “M” sound. This linkage might trigger surprise in readers, since “melancholy” and “menace” are not words often used together: “Melancholy” tends to indicate sadness, but not fear, while “menace” conjures up a more sinister image. This surprise at the alliterative pairing, along with the image that the pairing evokes, unsettles readers, and it creates a sensation something like the “shiver” that “The Bells” is talking about.