Term of Art: Alliteration

“Alliteration: (Latin ‘repeating and playing upon the same letter’) A figure of speech in which consonants, especially at the beginning of words, or stressed syllables, are repeated. It is a very old device indeed in English verse (older than rhyme) and is very common in verse generally. It is used occasionally in prose. In Old English poetry alliteration was a continual and essential part of the metrical scheme and until the late Middle Ages was of was often used thus. However, alliterative verse becomes increasingly rare after the end of the 15th century and alliteration—like assonance, consonance and onomatopoeia—tends to more to be reserved for the achievement of special effect.

There are many classic examples, like Coleridge’s famous description of the sacred river Alph in Kubla Khan:

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Any others less well known, like this from the beginning of Norman MacCaig’s poem Mutual Life:

A wild cat, fur-fire in a bracken brush,

Twitches his club-tail,  rounds his amber eyes

At rockabye rabbits humped on the world. The air

Crackles about him. His world is a rabbit’s size.

And this, from the first stanza of R.S. Thomas’s The Welsh Hill Country:

Too far for you to see

The fluke and the foot-rot and the fat maggot

Gnawing the skin from the small bones,

The sheep are grazing at Bwlch-y-Fedwen,

Arranged romantically in the usual manner

On a bleak background of bald stone.

Alliteration is common in nonsense verse:

Be lenient with lobsters, and ever kind to crabs,

And be not disrespectful to cuttle-fish or dabs;

Chase not the Cochin-China, chaff not the ox obese,

And babble not of feather-beds in company with geese

in tongue-twisters:

Betty Botter bought some butter,

But, she said, the butter’s bitter;

If I put it in my batter

It will make my batter bitter,

But a bit of better butter,

That would make my batter better.

in jingles:

Dingle digle doosey,

The cat’s in the well,

The dog’s away to Bellingen

To buy the bairn a bell.

and in patter beloved of drill sergeants and the like:

Now then, you horrible shower of heathens, have I your complete hattention?

Hotherwise I shall have to heave the whole hairy lot of you into the salt box

where you will live on hopeful hallucinations for as long as hit pleases God and

the commanding hofficer”

Excerpted from: Cuddon, J.A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. New York: Penguin, 1992.

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