Alliteration has long served as a structural scheme in English poetry, together with rhythm, meter or rhyme. Alliteration is the use of consecutive (though not necessarily adjacent) words beginning with the same sound, as in the phrase “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” The alliterative sound may also occur on an accented syllable, rather than at the beginning of the word.
The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is known for its consistent use of alliteration, a feature that aided its transmission by word of mouth before it was written. Here is the beginning of the poem in the original, with a translation by Francis B. Gummere in the Harvard Classics:
Oft Scyld Scêfing sceaðena preátum,
monegum maegðum meodo-setla ofteáh.
Egsode eorl, syððan ærest wearð
feá-sceaft funden : he päs frðfre gebâd,
weðx under wolcnum, weorð-myndum ðâh . . .
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve . . .
Here are a few later excerpts from English poetry as examples of alliteration:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
— Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), “To His Coy Mistress”
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank . . .
— Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), “Binsey Poplars”
It can be an enjoyable exercise to try alliteration in composing poetry; I have used it several times. In Heart of the Highriders, the novel I wrote jointly with my daughter Charity Silkebakken, the Councilor Lincaemon the Elder utters a funeral lament for the fallen ruler Fauntflooy:
Bewail our Fauntflooy, noble and strong,
who ruled the realm with right
and was first to fight the fiercest,
in brutal battle bold!
Bewail our Fauntflooy, and weep,
for he furnished you with finery,
wrapped you in riches,
favored you with food and fatness,
shielded you in safe shelter,
left your life with no lack!
My poem “Peculiar People,” which my wife, Shirley Anne, kindly included in her chapbook The Promise, uses alliteration throughout. Here is the first stanza:
Pilgrims we are, passing through this plane
of dismal dreariness, our destination
not this trial-torn, terrestrial turf
where falsehood flaunts its frightful face,
but bound for blessedness and beauty,
land of life and luminous love
where Christ the crucified, our King, controls.
Alliteration seems especially appropriate when you’re trying for a rhetorical impact, but it has other uses such as creating a sound effect or bringing out humor. If you’re stumped sometime by difficulties with meter or rhyme, try alliteration as a device to help your poem “hang together.”
First published in WestWard Quarterly, Spring 2010 Issue.