Assonance, Consonance, and Alliteration

A literary device is used by writers to convey a message and help the reader interpret or appreciate the literary work. I’m going to dissect and analyze three fairly common and well-known stylistic devices used in literary works and poems.

I again fooled myself into thinking these would be simple and straight forward. But in an effort to learn more, I discovered I was only on the surface of knowledge when it comes the repetition of sounds. Sure, we’ve all heard of alliterations, right? We see them in literature, poems, speeches, music. The words itself seems to have leaked into the popular culture’s vernacular.

Alliteration, assonance, and consonance can be used for more than just silly tongue-twisters, though. Let’s dive in and find out what all these devices are, where they’re used, and how to use them.

Alliteration

An alliteration is the repeated sound of the first consonant in a series of multiple words. Pretty simple, right? We’ve all seen it. As I mentioned, it’s used and quite noticeable in tongue twisters like:

“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”

“She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore.”

Alliterations can be helpful in drawing attention to certain words or creating a pleasant rhythmic effect. Here we can see it used in this stanza by E.E. Cummings poem “All in green went my love riding” (I added the bolded letters for emphasis).

Softer be they than slippered sleep
the lean lithe deer
the fleet flown deer.

Alliterations can set the tone and mood of a poem. Soft sounds can be repeated to create a calm mood, or harsh sounds to create a tense or excited mood.

Assonance

Assonance is the repeated sound of vowels in a series of multiple words that often start with different consonant sounds. Assonance can be a little more subtle and not always as easy to spot.

Let’s look at a line in the poem “if a cheerfulest Elephantangelchild should sit”, again by E.E. Cummings (I added emphasis on the repeated vowel sounds.)

“on a proud round cloud in white high night”

And here in the lines from “Frost at Midnight” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

“Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side”

Assonance can sometimes enhance a musical effect by creating internal rhyme, and/or develop or set the mood of a poem like an alliteration can.

Consonance

So if assonance uses vowels, consonance must use consonants? Ah, look at that, this actually makes a bit of sense. Hence the name, consonance is characterized by repeated consonant sounds in a series of words.

This can be seen commonly in songs and hip-hop music. Notice in the song “Zealots” by Fugees:

“Rap rejects my tape deck, ejects projectile
Whether Jew or gentile, I rank top percentile

It often creates a half-rhyme but is different from a full rhyme in that it can occur anywhere in a word. And as we just learned, when it occurs at the beginning we call that an alliteration.

Consonance can be used for all the same reasons as assonance and alliteration. Sometimes all three even work together. Like in the example of the tongue-twister:

“She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore.”

Conclusion

Hopefully this cleared up some confusion about the difference between assonance, consonance, and alliteration and how they’re used. I know I’ll be noticing them a lot more in the poems I read and recognizing them as the poet’s deliberate stylistic choice.

To keep with my theme of pairing poetry with painting, I’ll note that the title picture of this post (and the picture I put below) is that of Russian post-impressionist painter Leonid Pasternak. It is titled “The Passion of Creation”, or possibly the “Throes of Creation”, and painted in the 1880s. (sources were unclear). I’m partial to the name Throes of Creation because it gives me a sense of the pain and struggle, along with the passion, that can be felt when creating art and especially poetry.

russian-style:Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creating, 1880s

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