Guide to Literary Terms

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Alliteration

Alliteration (sometimes called initial rhyme) - common in poetry and occasionally in prose, this is the repetition of an initial sound in two or more words of a phrase, line, or sentence. It is usually a consonant and marks the stressed syllables in a line of poetry or prose. Alliteration may be considered ornamental or as a decoration which appeals to the sense of hearing.

The word comes from the Latin ad literam, which means “according to the letter.”

This device was consistently used in Old English poetry, but fell out of favor in the Middle Ages. Now it is used to emphasize meaning and is especially effective in oratory. It is characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry, as in Beowulf, and is still used by modern poets in nonsense verse, tongue twisters, and jingles.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare makes satirical use of alliteration in order to demonstrate the artisan-acting troupe’s lack of poetic skill. In the play within the play, Pyramus and Thisbe, Quince says as prologue:

Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast.
Act V, scene i : lines 155 – 156