The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Alliteration: The repetition of sounds in a sequence of words. Alliteration generally refers to repeated consonant sounds (often initial consonant sounds or those at the beginning of stressed syllables) but has also been used by some critics to refer to repeated vowel sounds. When s is the repeated sound, the result is said to be sibilant. Alliteration was especially important in Old English verse, establishing the rhythm and structure of the poetic line. Since then, its role has diminished, although poets to this day use alliteration to create powerful musical effects and to highlight and emphasize key words, concepts, and relationships.

Densely alliterative utterances that are difficult to pronounce — such as “fresh fried fish” and “She sells seashells by the seashore” — are called tongue twisters.

EXAMPLES: The last line of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Of Mere Being” (1955):

The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

S appears as a sibilant alliterative sound in this passage from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899):

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

The following passage from Michael Byers’s short story “Blue River, Blue Sun,” from his collection The Coast of Good Intentions (1998), is packed with s and p sounds:

The plastic water vials shifted in his pack like tiny men shifting in sleep, and when he dipped to fill a sample his old knees popped and pinged. Away across the grasses he could see his students advancing one slow step at a time.

Sheryl Crow’s rowdy pop song “All I Wanna Do [Is Have Some Fun]” (1993) is based on the heavily alliterative poem “Fun” by Wyn Cooper (1987):

I like a good beer buzz early in the day

And Billy likes to peel the labels

From his bottles of Bud and shred them on the bar.

Alliteration is a common device in hip hop — itself an alliterative term. The opening stanza of Pharoahe Monch’s “Hell” (1999) is rife with f sounds, including “follow,” “Pharoahe,” “formidable,” “fights,” “familiar,” “foes,” “first,” “fondling,” “fiercely,” “focus,” “facts,” “fabricated,” “phonetics,” “forces,” “feeble,” and “fly.”