How to talk about… alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of the same or similar sounds at the beginning of a word.  In modern definitions, alliteration usually refers to the repetition of consonants or consonant clusters (i.e. str, th).  Some Middle English poetry uses alliteration in every single line as part of its metre and form.  This is structural alliteration, alliteration which is part of the structure of every line.  This post is NOT discussing how to talk about structural alliteration in alliterative verse, but rather how to talk about sporadic, ornamental alliteration in Middle English non-alliterative verse.

Alliteration is easier to spot and comment upon than metrical patterns or rhetorical figures.  So self-discipline is required here: are you pointing this out because it’s easy, or because you remember being told to point this out, or because it really is one of the most striking things in this line or passage?  Nonetheless, even though it doesn’t show much skill to spot it, it IS often a figure of speech, an artificial pattern put into language by a poet for some rhetorical purpose.  That is, it is used to emphasise or ornament particular lines in a conscious way, perhaps in a particularly descriptive passage, or a passage of action, or a passage which a poet wants to seem particularly formal, ornate or poetic.

Alliteration appeals both to the eye (if you are reading the poem) and to the ear (if you are hearing the poem).  It’s a bit superficial just to scan the words, looking for repeated first letters, rather than read the line aloud or inwardly to hear which sounds are linked and which are most noticeable.  Perhaps the alliteration is not the most striking sound echo in the line?  Again, self-discipline is needed here.

Don’t just look at the first letter of words on a single line.  You might find alliteration between the start of one word and the first stressed syllable of another word, after a prefix (i.e. ‘Thu tyraunt untemperat, with thi tene and treson).  There might be interlinear alliteration (i.e. alliteration across two or three lines).  Again, this needs to be plausible – it won’t be convincing if the words are ten lines apart.  The alliteration of consonant clusters might be particularly noticeable.

You will need to think about whether this alliteration is a conscious choice by a poet.  If one of the alliterating words is a non-substitutable word (i.e. his helmet – would the poet really choose a word other than the pronoun ‘his’ here?), the alliteration may not be all that significant.  If the alliterating words are often found together (e.g. wit and will), the author may have done this out of habit, without particular decorative or emphatic intention.  You could check this out via the Middle English Dictionary, or just consider whether the meaning of the pair of words suggests that they are a familiar collocation.

Students are sometimes taught to argue that the alliterating letters are a kind of sound symbolism, in which the sounds imitate or echo particular sounds or actions in real life, functioning onomatopoeically.  You should think carefully whether this is plausible – is it credible that repetitions of letters can sound like real-world noises?  Murmuring memories might seem onomatopoeic, but murdering menaces does not, because it’s often the content of the words which prompts us to believe that the words might be onomatopoeic.  There ARE patterns of phonetic association in English(i.e. slippery, slide, slime, sludge, or twist, twirl, twiddle etc) and poets do draw on this pre-existing phonetic symbolism.  So try to analyse what kind of causation is underpinning your observation: is this alliteration credibly imitative, is it being triggered what words mean, or is it exploiting patterns of sound association?

Finally, why might the poet have added in alliteration?  To be more rhetorical, more emphatic, more self-consciously poetic, or to make us more conscious of some sort of sensory or descriptive quality?  Try to analyse how form might relate to meaning.  In a very subtle way, the sound link between two words (whether alliteration or rhyme) establishes the briefest of relationships between the two words’ form, and thus, in the most imperceptible manner, lets you wonder if there is some other sort of relationship between those two words.  This is more noticeable if the two words are not often found together.   Are the alliterating words ironically different or meaningfully alike?  Does the juxtaposition of these two words, emphasised by their alliteration, have a significance for this passage?

Further reading:

Amanda Holton, The Sources of Chaucer’s Poetics (Ashgate, 2008), pp. 106–12

Richard H Osbert, ‘“I kan nat geeste”: Chaucer’s Artful Alliteration’, in Essays on the Art of Chaucer’s Verse, ed. Alan T Gaylord (Routledge, 2001)

Hans Marchand’s chapter on ‘Phonetic Symbolism’ in The Categories and Types of Modern English Word-Formation (1960)

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