Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Alliteration and assonance

Students learn early, and often very successfully, how to spot alliteration (repetition of the same or similar initial consonant sounds) and assonance (repetition of the same or similar vowel sounds) and when analysing poetry the keener ones often spend considerable time doing just that. So, having spotted these phenomena what to say about them? Ah, there’s the rub. Some resort to that old standby “the alliteration/assonance helps the poem to flow”. Others, sensing (rightly) that that really says nothing, set about assigning meaning to the sounds themselves: “the repeated sibilant ‘s’ sounds create an atmosphere of menace.” Unfortunately of course the sounds themselves have no intrinsic meaning, and you would be as likely to find (possibly even in the same essay) “the repeated ‘s’ sounds create a soft and soothing atmosphere”(it is actually striking how often, in seeking to explain the effect of alliteration students unconsciously resort to alliteration themselves).

So what is there to say about these phenomena? More to the point, why do poets use them in the first place? To answer the second question first I am sure that poets are not always directly conscious at the time of writing of using techniques such as alliteration and assonance, or many other ‘poetic’techniques: good poets just know when their poetry ‘sounds right’ and these techniques are what gives their writing its power. They just work.

So why and how do alliteration and assonance work? Quite simply, as we listen to language our ear and unconscious brain seem attuned to patterns of sound. Where sounds are repeated, forming patterns, we unconsciously notice those words more and, crucially, notice the links between them more. When Keats describes the personified Autumn sitting in the grain store, “Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;” the repetition of the short “i” sounds, intertwined with the repetition of the “w” sounds does a number of things. First the pattern of sound makes the line liltingly beautiful, and we notice it more as a result. Second, we hear slightly more strongly the words “lifted”, “winnowing” and “wind” and think slightly more about the links between them. Third, since the three words have a lot in common we form a slightly stronger idea of the way the soft, light chaff on a threshing floor is like the soft, light hair of a young woman, gently lifted by the gentle breeze of an autumn afternoon.

In working this way alliteration and assonance tap into the enormous power that is contained in the connotations of words. All words have connotations (the ideas , feelings and images we associate with them) and sometimes a vast range of them. Think of all the connotations of the word “heart”-better still, experience them in these two sentences: “Her heart sang with joy at the sight of his face” and “The heart was still twitching as he sank his teeth into its glistening surface.” What alliteration and assonance do, like other techniques that link words together, is to guide us to which of the many connotations of each word come to the surface as we read the lines. In the line from Autumn we are aware of the gentle, soothing connotations of the word “wind” but of course the word has a very different set of connotations too. Take this line from Hopkins’ Wreck of the Deutschland describing a storm:“the wind;/ Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivell├Ęd snow/Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.” Here, as in the Keats line, an intertwined pattern of alliteration (the “w” sounds) and assonance (the long “i” sounds) picks out and links “wind”, “wiry” and “white-fiery”. Depending on your pronunciation this is more or less strongly linked with “whirlwind”, leading on to the assonance of the short “i” sounds that links “Spins” and “widow-making” that anyway links back with the “w” sound again. Here, the emphasis and linking bring to the surface a wholly different set of connotations of the word “wind”to those Keats used. Such is the power of poetry.

Of course Gerard Manley Hopkins is a supreme master of language, glorying in the power and beauty of alliteration, assonance and the connected phenomenon consonance (repetition of the same or similar consonant sound at any place in a word). He was acutely aware of the connotations of words, and coined the term “inscape”, partly at least, to describe the inner landscape of words that these connotations produce. At his best, he uses bewilderingly beautiful patterns of sound, that coax out every detail of his words’ inscape, such as in the beautifully sensuous description in Wreck of the Deutschland of eating a sloe by letting it burst in the mouth (like the grape in Keats’ Ode on Melancholy): “How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe/ Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,/Gush!—flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,/Brim, in a flash, full!”.

I would like to end this entry by focusing on another master of this area of poetic technique- and admirer of Keats- Wilfrid Owen. His poem Exposure contains what is possibly the most quoted example of alliteration in English literature: “Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.” This is of course an immensely powerful line. Most students get the onomatopoeic quality of the hard sibilant “s” sounds, but there is more. Look at the way the alliteration (and consonance) links the words “Sudden”, “successive”, “streak”and “silence”. In some ways surely this linkage is counter-intuitive. Does not “silence”have a totally different set of connotations from the other words? Well initially, perhaps yes, but that is the power of Owen at his best. To the soldier in the trenches, silence is far from benign. To him, silence does have connotations of menace, and even of extreme, sudden and potentially fatal action. Apart from anything else, the bombardment that preceded any major offensive would often end suddenly just before the soldiers went over the top- the blast of the whistle cutting through the unaccustomed silence was a haunting aural image to many.

At his best Owen, like Hopkins, uses the complex beauty and interlinking of meaning that alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme and in his case half-rhyme can bring to immerse us in the complexity of ideas, feelings and images that a full exploration of the connotations of words can bring. I will not analyse the following stanza. Read it yourself, aloud and with an ear and a mind open to the complex interplay of sounds and ideas. It is the central stanza of Exposure. In it the soldiers, who are close to death in the icy front line trenches of the winter war and drifting in and out of consciousness, dream themselves back in England in Spring:
“Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces -
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses,
- Is it that we are dying?"

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