As forms or figures, assonance, consonance, and alliteration provide particularly interesting locations for examining the relationship between literary and bodily forms, writing, and gender and sexuality. Because they depend so much on the body and context of the speaker or reader, alliteration, assonance, and consonance become a location for exploring the relationship between reader, context, and reflection—the reader or speaker’s context is reflected onto the pronunciation and accents of the words. These forms ask us, as well, to question the extent to which sound and harmony are textual and/or aural. Perhaps partly because of these variables, these forms' definition, discussion, and literary values are up for debate outside of the discussion of particular genres (such as Anglo-Saxon poetry).
This section will outline common definitions of each term, as well as troubles defining these terms. Part of their usefulness for this study is precisely in such difficulties and debates defining these terms and their inability to be extricated from one another, or from the more capacious term “rhyme.” The types of difficulties present in defining these terms demonstrate how reading practices have valued these local, yet dispersed, sounds, and how queerly these formal phenomena resist categorization.
Of the three terms, “assonance” seems to have had the most troubled and most debated history of definitions. The reason is partly historical, and partly due to the need to repeat vowel sounds in words for rhyme—one might ask if there is a need to define assonance separately at all.
In 1973, Percy G. Adams published an article in PMLA arguing for “The Historical Importance of Assonance to Poets.” Adams argues that assonance has not been given the same level of scholarship and study as alliteration, and outlines both the reasons why and assonance’s importance. According to a number of encyclopedic, scholarly, and poetic sources Adams cites, assonance has not received scholarly attention or intentional use in English writing because of several misconceptions:
- Repeated vowel sounds are not important in English literature, “scarcely recognized as legitimate;”
- Alliteration, or repeated sounds at the beginning of words, is where the repeated “power” is;
- Because vowel sounds vary over time and between languages, the poet must “abandon most of the dubious security of the letter and compose instead with his own voice and for his own ear.”
Decades after Adams wrote this article, the Encyclopedia Britannica still describes assonance in the following manner: “…it was rarely used in English as a deliberate technique until the late 19th and 20th centuries, when it was discerned in the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wilfred Owen. Their use of assonance instead of end rhyme was often adopted…” [Click for source]
Of alliteration, the Britannica writes, “Though alliteration is now a subsidiary embellishment in both prose and poetry, it was a formal structural principle in ancient Germanic verse.” [Click for source]
Since the 1970s, then, Britannica’s discussion of assonance, and even of alliteration (although Adams believes alliteration holds a higher place), has not changed particularly much. Assonance is not recognized as an “deliberate technique” until certain authors, and alliteration is a “subsidiary embellishment.” Vowels’ instability, and generally their apparent instability and reliance on local contexts and languages makes them unsuitable for the rigorous, “legitimate” forms of rhyme. Moreover, there is something ethereal to these small, phonemic repetitions—they aren’t always immediately adjacent, and the sounds might flow across lines and stanzas.
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics offers a more comprehensive description of assonance, partly because the entry has been co-written by P.G. Adams and Stephen Cushman. Picking up, seemingly, Adams’s wider argument about assonance, the authors stress the significance of assonance in poetry:
…the [history] of the word assonance in [English] suggests that it has served some as the more comprehensive term [compared to rhyme]. According to the OED, the word assonance first appeared in [English] in 1727 and meant “resemblance or correspondence of sound between two words or syllables.” This definition, which does not limit assonance to “the recurrence of syllable-forming vowels” (Gasparov’s formulation; see definition 2 in the OED), would make assonance the basis not only of all rhyme but of all “prosody.”
Such a definition of assonance subverts emphasis on stressed rhyme in prosody, and, moreover, draws our attention to the ways vowels might “resemble” or “correspond” to rather than merely repeating one another. Rather than conceiving of assonance (or any groupings of sound) as mere “repetition,” I suggest we read them as resemblances, correspondences—mirrors, in fact—across words and lines. From this perspective, assonance is constituted not by repetition, but by the reflection of sound. Our reading practices, I would argue, inform and form assonance as much as the literal vowel on the page or in the ear. I am less interested in the objectively “correct” vowel than I am in the ways sounds reflect and repeat across lines as we read them, in all of our own varied, entangled, linguistic and social contexts. (Hence my recordings of myself reading passages of Shelley.)
-The Cenci, 2.2.128-143
Click below for audio recording.
Although Adams and Cushman seem to make room for such a broad and reflective definition of assonance, they restrict it in other ways. They define assonance as “The repetition of a vowel or dipthong in nonrhyming stressed syllables near enough to each other for the echo to be discernable.” (94) At the end of the entry, they explain why they’ve emphasized stressed syllables: “just as computers would be of little help in finding assonance, any reader should hesitate before including obviously weak syllables in a study of vowel repetitions.” The implication, here, is that just as computers would be unable to identify any instances of assonance, people would similarly be unable to accurately discern assonance in “weak” syllables. They stress, as well, the importance of understanding the correct historical and linguistic contexts in order to perceive the correct vowel sounds.
While such work is important, approaching assonance only from these perspectives ignores the ways readers construct assonance and alliteration with the poet. These perspectives also consign these forms to the “strong” sorts of repetition that people tend to associate with masculine rhymes, as opposed to the “weak” repetition of feminine rhymes.
Poet Mary Oliver offers a more narrow and somewhat more common definition of “assonance” as “the repetition of vowel sounds within words in a line or lines of verse. In effect, such repetition creates a near-rhyme” (30). She goes on to argue for the importance of assonance: “Because of its position inside words, assonance is less obvious than alliteration, but this by no means implies that its effect is slight or unimportant” (31). Oliver defines assonance with the more narrow, common definition, but like Adams, she gestures toward its relationship to rhyme. And despite its somewhat hidden position, she nonetheless argues that it has an “effect.” What the effect is, it seems, might vary depending on the poem and the sounds repeated.
Oliver’s definition of assonance as “near-rhyme” follows nearly with the definitions and usages offered by the Oxford English Dictionary:
Adams and Cushman briefly summarized this entry, but the first example from Ephraim Chambers’s 1728 Cyclopaedia looks similar to Oliver’s definition, in which we recognize assonance only when the words do not rhyme fully. Some have thus defined assonance by what it is not, or what it fails to “properly” be—a repetition that does not reproduce.
Alliteration has, on the surface, perhaps the clearest definition of the three, yet it too struggles for value—the Britannica definition above, for example, states that it is “embellishment” and suggests it only had value as an intentional device in particular genres.
Oliver defines alliteration as the “repetition of the initial sound in a line or lines of verse” and not to “worry about excess” for this “sonorous and lively device” (29). The question of “excess” seems to be, in addition to genre and convention, the central issue regarding the definition of “alliteration” throughout literary history, both on the part of poets and critics (and poet-critics). Opinions, of course, varied both during Shelley’s time and also in ours, but nonetheless, the questions of both genre and excess seem to be the common threads throughout all discussions, regardless of the author’s personal views.
Throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, much of the discussion about alliteration took place in histories of English poetry, which attempted to explain the form of Anglo-Saxon verse (which had not been definitively settled; see Jeff Strabone’s Poetry and British Nationalisms in the Bardic Eighteenth Century for an account of eighteenth century perceptions of Anglo-Saxon verse). Such histories include Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which examines alliteration in Piers Plowman, and Bosworth’s 1823 Elements of Anglo-Saxon Grammar. Several discuss Chaucer, but the primary concern was an investigation of older English literary history.
Poet William Crowe’s 1827 Treatise on English versification offers a history of people’s attitudes toward alliteration, centered primarily on “immoderate” uses. He believes critics became more concerned with, or exhausted by, alliterative excess and affectation during the Jacobean era. Crowe offers little of his own opinions on alliteration, aside from stating that he believes almost no modern English poets have “offended” with excessive alliteration. In a footnote, he quotes Welsh writer Peter Roberts remarking on a contemporary alliterative Welsh form: “the taste of the Welsh poets was corrupted by a jingling alliteration” (241).
A collection of essays by essayist and priest Vicesimus Knox cautions against the overuse of alliteration:
Alliteration is conducive to sweetness, and is a figure frequently used by the best writers, ancient and modern. Used with caution it cannot fail to please; but the cause of the pleasure should be latent. When this figure obtrudes itself too often, and in excess, as it does in several modern writers, it loses all its grace…This, indeed, and all other ornaments, are to be used, as it has been observed, like salt at a meal...
-vol. 2, p. 305
(The second volume containing this quote was first published in 1779, and the collection of essays as a whole went through more than seventeen printings.)
Here, alliteration’s role in poetry is difficult to determine. Knox describes it as an “ornament,” as several others have, but he also describes it as a “figure” that possibly might “obtrude” excessively. While he most likely does not mean “figure” in the sense that we do today, his use of the term nonetheless calls our attention to alliteration as embodied, as having a material figure consisting of some combination, it seems, of sound and text. And the perhaps intentional alliteration between “figure” and “frequent” links “figure” to repetition in the reader’s mind.
Regardless of whether or not a particular author condoned uses of alliteration, discussions about it have tended to describe it either in terms of an authorized English literary genealogy, or an “ornament” (also a particular kind of physical item) with the potential for either pleasure or “jingling” excess. Few prosody manuals from the long eighteenth century seem to have taken on alliteration as a device used by current poets, and instead it seems to largely appear only in discussion of English literary history. In other words, without its attachment to particular genres or literary traditions, alliteration seems to have become merely an ornament by the time of the mid-eighteenth century. Hence, by distracting from the other harmonies of a poem, alliteration threatens and/or embodies the potential for excess.
Each time alliteration is defined, it is defined by how a word or syllable begins; assonance, generally by its interiority (and sometimes as a word’s final syllable or sound, particularly in discussing near-rhyme).
Consonance, meanwhile, seems to be generally recognized by modern poets and guides as the repetition of consonant sounds throughout a line, at the beginning, interior, and end of words. (See, for example, Oliver, p. 30) However, it still has historical and definitional ambiguity. Consonance has often meant harmony or likeness; such a definition thus also seems important to consider even when using the modern definition of the literary device.
-Witch of Atlas, Stanza XXXVI
Click below for audio recording.
Indeed, many of the debates quoted above about alliteration and assonance are about harmony and the appropriateness of these embodied elements in different contexts and usages. In some ways, then, consonance might also be, as Adams and Cushman have said about assonance, the “basis…of all of prosody.” While consonance was discussed as a particular device in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the term most often appears in general discussions of harmony. And beyond the particular use of the word “consonance,” the repetition of consonants internally seems less of an issue than the beginnings and endings of words, particularly following debates about the relationship between rhyme and meter. Finally, as well, the first definition of “consonance” in the OED is the same one as in “assonance”:
We can’t easily distinguish “consonance” from “assonance,” then, nor is it clear whether consonance refers to the beginning, interior, or end of words.
While definitions and terms are useful (indeed, I use several throughout my discussion of Shelley, such as “(re/dis)figure”), the difficulty in defining these terms demonstrates the difficulty of attempting to categorize sound, particularly when engaging historical texts. By intentionally acknowledging my own twenty-first century sonic contexts, I hope to continue to draw attention to the ways sound can be a location for revaluing bodies dispersed across time, space, and/or gender. These forms come into being, I suggest, in the ways they simultaneously deform and form one another, creating disfigured figures that are both near to and dispersed from one another, and it is my intention to visualize and call attention to their disfiguration, achieved through the reflection of the sounds across lines, and engage in a refiguration through such visualization. [I discuss this more fully at the end of my introduction to my use of AntConc.]