What is alliterative poetry?
What are the examples of alliterative poetry?
What are the uses of alliterative poetry?
If these are your questions, stay tuned and keep reading!
‘In a poem, the words should be as pleasing to the ear as the meaning is to the mind.’ – Marianne Moore.
Poetry, the genre of literature that is known to evoke imaginative awareness wears many faces. From Sonnet to Shi, Limerick to Ode, the forms of poetry encompass and project diverse feelings, intentions, and genres too. Derived from the Greek word Poiesis which means ‘making’, poetry is the literary genre that utilizes aesthetics and the rhythmic qualities of language (phonoaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre), to evoke meaning.
Its history as an art form predates written text and it can be traced back to the Odyssey (800-675) BC. Poetry was one of the earliest recorded forms of literature as its fragments can be found on early runestones and monoliths.
This literature genre can be considered as verbal art as it’s very expressive. The use of poetry today transcends entertainment. A lot of ancient works, from the Vedas (1500 – 1000 BC) to the Odyssey (800 – 675 BC), had been composed in poetic form. This was done to aid memorization of lines and of course, oral transmission, in ancient societies.
Many of the poems from the ancient world that is still known in these times are those that were recorded in prayers or stories based on the religious subject matter. However, they are also seen in historical accounts, instructions for everyday activities, fiction, and everyone’s favorite, love songs. Today poetry is has evolved into a weapon wielded to inspire, trigger awareness, explain politics, etc. as its purpose is quite symbolic.
Poetry has diverse subgenres and it can be written in various forms. In this piece, we’ll be dissecting the modern development of poetry alongside one of its forms of representation, Alliteration or Alliterative Poetry.
Modern Development of Poetry
‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind’ – William Shakespeare
The development of modern poetry seems to have commenced from the 20th to the 21st century. Modern poetry evolved from the times of epic poetry in medieval times, the Renaissance period, the Victorian period, and several other eras to what we have now. At the beginning of the 20th century, some poets still adhered to the archaic structures and forms while others experimented.
In the early 1900s, there was a modernist movement that seemed to be the oppression against the elegant and beautiful ideologies of what poetry should be. This led to shorter poems from the likes of W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, etc. The American poets who adopted this new terrain of poetry and helped inspire generations include the likes of Maya Angelou, June Jordan, Wallace Stevens, and many more.
After 1945, the postmodern movement inspired the birth of more abstract and experimental poetry styles. Texts in poetry could be fragmented and even obscure and from this postmodern movement emerged the beat poets. Beat poetry emerged in the 1940s and ’50s. Its style was a more spontaneous form of writing as it was poetic experimentation. This style was influenced by the cadences of Jazz music; it was very surrealistic and was a large free verse. William Shakespeare, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac all dabbled in beat poetry and some were more devoted than others. The beat poetry movement also inspired another style of poetry which is called Spoken Word.
Spoken Word is such an emotion-evoking style of poetry and it’s performed with or without theatrics. Its purpose is to promote awareness, emotions, and can inspire a movement. Spoken Word can be political, religious, entertaining, awe-inspiring, and all-encompassing. However, it aims at conveying a message in the most inspiring way. Because of the experimentation of past poets, one can find poetry of all sorts today. While it may not be as celebrated today as compared to the medieval times when it was infused in speech, poetry is not a lost art especially if you know where to look.
Devices of Poetry
Poetry comes in multiple distinct forms or devices. These can also be referred to as their subgenres. The devices of poetry are simply the tools used or reflected in a poem. In essence, a poem is made up of poetic devices. They are the essential tools that a poet or a writer uses to create rhythm, enhance meaning or amplify an emotion.
There are a ton of poetic devices that poets use. From Assonance to Alliteration, Consonance, Metaphor, Onomatopoeia, Personification, Imagery, Rhyme, etc. these devices are used distinctively in multiple poems. However, for this piece, we’ll be focusing on the poetic device called Alliteration.
First, What Is Alliteration?
Alliteration which comes from the Latin word ‘ littera,’ which means ‘letter of the alphabet’, is a poetic device that applies when a series of words, occurring close together in form of phrases, sentences, or lines of poetry, possess the same first consonant sound.
Wikipedia defines it as “…the repetition of letters or letter-sounds at the beginning of two or more words immediately succeeding each other, or at short intervals; or the recurrence of the same letter in accented parts of words.” This current definition has been in use since the 1650s.
The use of Alliteration in poetry dates back to prehistoric times. The earliest English poetry was alliterative. It came with a distinct metre that possessed two half-lines, each having two stresses, and all separated by a caesura.
This type of poem featured the first stress of the second half-line being alliterated with the stresses of the first half-line. Alliterative stresses in poems guaranteed the rhythm of the poem. It made poems easy to memorize and recite. They are used to emphasize a particular mood or meaning within the said context
Origin of Alliteration
Alliteration in English and poetry dates back to the 11th century as, before this time, there was only one way to write poetry in English. Alliterative poems are written in an alliterative meter – A meter is the rhythmic structure of a line or lines in a work of poetry.
N/B: In poetry specifically, a key factor of determining alliteration is via the poem’s meter.
However, as the years progressed and by the late 12th century and onward, other forms of meters were introduced. These were the French and Latin-inspired syllabic English meters. This gave rise to relief in the use of the Alliterative meter. However, by the middle of the 16th century, the alliterative verse ceased to function as a metrical option in English literary culture. This is coming after poets combined the alliterative metric with the stanzaic rhyme patterning style sometime in the 14th century.
Whether they are found in poetic anthologies or visible amongst diverse types of writing, a lot of alliterative poems exist in one or two manuscripts. The alliterative corpus encompasses an assembly of genres ranging from brief monologues to long narratives.
This being said, four long poems have attracted the most in-depth attention since the re-integration of the alliterative meter in the 17th and 18th centuries. These poems include the likes of Beowulf, Lawman’s Brut, Piers Plowman, and Sir Gawain, and the Green Knight. Beowulf, first printed in 1815, is known as the oldest poem written in the alliterative meter. However, by the 20th century, modern poets mostly utilize alliterative verse for either formal or thematic expressions.
An alliterative meter is a feature that assembles alliterative verse as a field for both modern scholars and even medieval practitioners. It is known to be accentual as it measures the accent of words.
The topic of alliterative metrics has been subdivided since the 19th century. Its subdivisions include the Old English metrics and the Middle English Alliterative Metrics. This being said, the 14th-century English alliterative meter is a form of literature with roots in the Old English period. This is before the Norman Conquest of England (1066).
In these times (9th -11th centuries), the alliterative meter was the only way in which one could write poetry in English. However, as previously stated, by the 14th century, it became one of the multiple metrical options available. The other options that were available to poets writing in English included the iambic tetrameter as in Pearl by Gawain Poet and the iambic pentameter.
Just like the English Language did, the Alliterative meter witnessed evolution over time. Archaic metrical patterns that were acceptable in the Old English poems like Beowulf became unacceptable in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This rule applied vice versa.
However, even with these changes, certain aspects of the metrical system had remained constant in the same period. In essence, an arbitrary fact about the 14th-century alliterative meter is that it can be explained by reviewing the Old English meter, in the same way, some irregular verbs like draw-drew-drawn in Modern English can be explained by reviewing the Old English language.
Alliteration in poetry has indeed come a long way, however, it’s often mistaken for other devices of poetry like Assonance and Consonance. Here are the differences between these three poetic devices.
Alliteration VS Assonance Vs Consonance
Alliteration: This is the literary device that focuses on the repetition of a speech sound in a sequence of words that are close to each other. Alliteration almost always makes use of consonant sounds at the beginning of a word to give stress to its syllable. These consonantal sounds are repeated in the line across the stanza of the poem. Example: ‘Tongue Twister’, etc.
Assonance: In Assonance, the repetition is on the vowel sounds. The repeated vowel sounds could be at the beginning of the word, at the middle, or even at the end. It is the condition of the resemblance of sound between the syllables of words in proximity to each other that arises from the rhyming of two or more stressed vowels. Unlike Alliteration, assonance has nothing to do with consonants. For example, ‘Try to light the fire.’
Consonance: This is a literary device that is identified by the repetition of an identical or similar consonant in neighboring and successive words whose vowel sounds are different from each other. Alliteration is considered a subcategory or subset of consonance because it refers only to the sounds repeated at the beginning of words. Alliteration is a consonant sound repetition that occurs at the beginning of a word while consonance can occur anywhere in the word or the stressed syllable. An example of consonance is ‘Traffic on the fourth will be tough.’
These literary devices can be used separately or in combination in prose, speech, or poetry to enliven the text.
Understanding Alliterative Poetry
With the afore highlighted definitions and historical facts, Alliterative poetry is a subgenre of poetry that utilizes the repetition of consonantal sounds at the beginning of successive words. It serves to accentuate keywords, syllables, or phrases as subtly as can be. The reason for this lies in its audio aesthetic as this repetition is known to be pleasing to the ear. This repetition serves as a means to capture the attention of readers or listeners. It also poses a clear way to signify that the alliterative words or the words whose initial consonants are repeated are connected thematically. Hence, it highlights the subject contained therein.
Examples of Alliterative Poetry
There are so many alliterative poems and although they come in two varieties, long and short, they create rhythm and emphasize a mood. Speaking of examples, the modern genre terms of poetry such as the elegy, epic, and lyric, though often considered to be anachronistic for the medieval English meter, still seemed to conform to the broad distinction between these long and short poems.
However, it is known that whether as a function to facilitate their methods of preservation or just a reflection of literary –historical trends, asides from Beowulf which has 3182 alliterative lines, all of the prehistoric/surviving alliterative poems are short.
Here are examples of such poems
Piers Plowman – Written 1370-90 by Williams Langland
N.B: The slashes indicate the division of the poem into half-lines, the stressed alliterations are underlined.
By wissynge of this wenche I dide, / hir words were so swete
Til I foryat youthe / and yarn into elde.
And thane was Fortune my foo, / for al hir faire biheste,
And poverte pursued me / and putte me lowe
- Even William Shakespeare’s work often featured alliteration. There are a lot of examples in Romeo and Juliet. However, he often applied it in his poetry as well.
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there,
Sap checked with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness everywhere.
Then were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor no remembrance what it was.
But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.
- The Raven (1845) by Edgar Allan Poe
This poem uses alliteration in pairs of words. In the first three lines of the poem, you can see examples like weak & weary, deep & darkness, doubting, daring & dreams, and dared & dream.
‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary’
‘Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before’
- Finally, Thomas Hardy’s ‘In a Whispering Garden’ combines alliterations to create rhythm.
The alliterative stresses are found in the words Spirit, Speaking Spell, Splendid, Spot, and Soul for the letter S. For the letter G the stress falls on Gaunt Grey Gallery. The poem goes like this;
That whisper takes the voice
Of a Spirit, speaking to me,
Close, but invisible,
And throws me under a spell
At the kindling vision it brings;
And for a moment I rejoice,
And believe in transcendent things
That would make of this muddy earth
A spot for the splendid birth
Of everlasting lives,
Whereto no night arrives;
And this gaunt gray gallery
A tabernacle of worth
On this drab-aired afternoon,
When you can barely see
Across its hazed lacune
If opposite aught there be
Of fleshed humanity
Wherewith I may commune;
Or if the voice so near
Be a soul’s voice floating here.
Alliterative Poetry in tongue twisters
Alliterative poetry is introduced to children in the form of tongue twisters, most of which are used as nursery rhymes for obvious reasons. These tongue twisters are fun but they can be difficult to get right because of all the stumbling. Here are some common tongue twisters.
‘A plantain planter planted plenty plantain in the plantain plantation’.
If you think this one is too easy, we’re just getting started. Speaking of P’s here is another alliterative tongue twister that stresses the letter P;
‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
how many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick.’
The alliterative stress falls on all the words that begin with the letter P. Moving onto the more intense tongue twisters, we have the likes of;
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.”
So she bought a bit of butter,
Better than her bitter butter,
And she put it in her batter,
And the batter was not bitter;
So it was better Betty Botter
Bought a bit of better butter.
Try reciting that in one minute, that will tickle your breath. In this alliterative tongue twister, the letter B is stressed in every line.
Finally, here’s a tongue twister with a twist. Alliteration is all about stressing a consonantal sound and sometimes that sound is made with two letters. This is seen in Shel Silverstein’s ‘The Gnome, The Gnat and The Gnu’.
I saw an ol’ gnome
Take a gknock at a gnat
Who was gnibbling the gnose of his gnu.
I said, “Gnasty gnome,
Gnow, stop doing that.
That gnat ain’t done gnothing to you.”
He gnodded his gnarled ol’ head and said,
“‘Til gnow I gnever gnew
That gknocking a gnat
In the gnoodle like that
Was gnot a gnice thing to do.
The poet here seems to intentionally misspell some words just to satisfy the alliteration.
Uses of Alliterative Poetry
Alliteration in poetry is used to build and emphasize different moods. As much as a wide array of words could theoretically be sufficient to give a concise description of any subject, certain consonant sounds have their distinct connotations. Hence, appending the act of repetition to these sounds enhances their impact and effect.
For instance, think of the “s” sounds in “seat,” “sin” and “silver.” The pronunciation of these words in simultaneous order almost makes the words sound whispered. Hence, because of its repetitive nature, an air of mystery, intimacy, danger, or even solemnity can be evoked. It all depends on the context. Matter of fact, there’s a word for the repetition of this class of letter-sound, it’s known as sibilance.
Sibilance also applies to a group of words like ‘ship,’ ‘sip,’ ‘zip’, ‘chasm,’ ‘jealous,’ and one which we’ve used throughout this piece, ‘genre’. Alliteration in poetry also increases one’s remembrance tendency due to the rhythmic sounds it creates. Also, certain alliterations in poetry can give rise to humorous reactions, and thus, it can be entertaining as well.
Alliterative poetry is a subgenre that has come a long way from prehistoric times. From the evolution of its metrics to its use in nursery rhymes, this poetic device has impacted minds, given visualized perspectives, and stirred emotions for centuries past. Which is only expected, having been utilized by the greatest poets of all times.
Poetry itself can be a soul-searching form of literature and alliteration as a tool, there’s no limit to its influence. However, alliteration in prose, poetry, or speech should be applied judiciously to enrich language and vocabulary as inserting too many alliterations might just turn your intimate poem into a tongue twister.