Sibilance is a literary device in which consonant sounds are stressed. These are primarily “s” and “th” sounds.
These consonants specifically push air through the lips and make use of the tongue. They are most commonly associated with a hissing sound and the letter “s”. In poetry, it needs to appear at least twice in succession. This technique is similar to alliteration, but there is a major difference in the type of consonant used.
Alliteration, the repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words, closely collected, uses hard consonant sounds like “d” and “b”. Sibilance, on the other hand, makes use of soft consonants in order to create hissing sounds. These include “s,” “sh” and “th”. Both of these techniques are used to increase the rhythm and feeling of rhyme that a poem has.
Purpose of Sibilance
This technique is used, as are many others, to draw attention to a specific part of a poem. It could enhance a description of a scene or place emphasis on a piece of dialogue. The stresses of the syllables also create a pleasurable feeling of rhythm as they are read in one’s head or out loud. They help a line feel more poetic and flow easily from word to word. Sometimes the technique is even used to mimic that which it describes. For example, the “slithering snake slunk through the sheer sheets”. Here, the repetition of the “s” resembles the hissing of the snake. A similar effect can be achieved when speaking about water or air.
Examples of Sibilance in Poetry
Example #1 Questions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop
In this piece, Elizabeth Bishop argues for the pros and cons of travelling and the regrets that might appear along the way. The poem is dynamic, rich in imagery, figurative language and techniques like sibilance. There is a wonderful example in the first stanza of the poem. Take a look at these lines:
There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
There are a few instances in which the “s” sound, or something similar, is used in this first stanza. The most obvious example comes from the fourth line: “spill over the sides in soft slow-motion”. Other words “sea” and “streams” also carry the same hissing sound. This is one example in which the technique is used to mimic that which it is describing, in this case, numerous waterfalls. They are described by the poet as being “too many”. They’re overwhelming. This is supported by the emphasis the poet places on words that include “s” consonant sounds.
Example #2 The Chalk Pit by Edward Thomas
This mysterious and moving poem explores the themes of storytelling and history. It is a lyrical depiction of a chalk-pit and the “fullness” that one speaker believes exists there. The vibrant images of the chalk-pit that Thomas crafted in this poem come through loud and clear. They cast a reader’s mind from real histories to created ones with no time in between.
The characters fill in details about the pit, and through their description use sibilance. Take a look at lines eleven through seventeen:
‘I do not understand.’ ‘Why, what I mean is
That I have seen the place two or three times
At most, and that its emptiness and silence
And stillness haunt me, as if just before
It was not empty, silent, still, but full
Of life of some kind, perhaps tragical.
Has anything unusual happened here?’
Here, a reader can find several words that make use of the “s” consonant sound. They include “stillness,” “silence,” “silent,” and “still”. These work together to create an audible “hush” to the lines. The pit is a silent and strange place and by using the “s” sound repetitively in these lines Thomas was able to convey that without saying so too explicitly.
Example #3 The Rainbow by Walter De La Mare
‘The Rainbow’ is a beautiful, simple depiction of the natural occurrence, what comes before and after it. It is an emotional poem that has its root in natural phenomena and wisdom. Through the poem, De La Mare speaks on themes of the fleeting nature of beauty. Therefore, it is all the more important that stress is placed on those moments of beauty.
For example, “span the sky” in the second line of the first stanza and “showery” and “shone” in the second line of the second stanza. Both of these examples of alliteration are accompanied by other words beginning with the letter “s”. Take a look at the lines yourself:
I saw the lovely arch
Of Rainbow span the sky,
The gold sun burning
As the rain swept by.
This first stanza provides the reader with several examples of sibilance. They are connected to the appearance of the rainbow in the sky and the sweeping rain that past by just before it. The second stanza has other examples like “showery” and “shone”.