Writers turn to this technique when they want to emphasize or draw attention to one part of a written work, create or maintain a rhythm, or create a sound.
While the repetition of sound is the most important aspect of this technique, alliteration is also used to refer to the repetition of a letter at the beginning of multiple words.
Examples of Alliteration in Literature
Example #1: American Sonnet by Billy Collins
In ‘American Sonnet,’ there is a great example of alliteration in the fourth and fifth stanzas. It can be seen through the reuse of the “w” consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. In these lines, collins makes use of this kind of repetition in order to benefit the overall rhythm of the poem. The “w” sounds are striking and somewhat surprising at this moment. Take a look at these two lines from the fifth stanza:
and hide the wish that we were where you are,
walking back from the mailbox […]
After the fifth stanza, the alliterative strands involving the “w” consonant sound drift away and are replaced by other alliterative moments such as “piazza’ and “pierce” in the sixth stanza and “toss” and “table” in the seventh stanza.
Example #2 Jabberwocky by Lewis Carrol
Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ has been categorized as part of a brand category of literature known as nonsense writing and, more directly, nonsense verse. The form of wiring originated from traditional nursery rhymes and games but was then evolved by writers such as Edward Lear and was later popularized by Lewis Carroll. Largely, this kind of writing has had a young audience, but today children and adults enjoy the style. ‘Jabberwocky’ is considered to be the most popular nonsense poem in the English language.
Take a look at these lines from ‘Jabberwocky’ that make use of alliteration:
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
Carroll plays with the sound, meaning, and lack of meaning attached to real and nonsense words in ‘Jabberwocky.’ Some of these words are simply out of place or out of order. They might, in other contexts, make sense. These include “gimble” and “tum.”
Others are gibberish, and the only place they’ve even been seen, at least in writing, is within ‘Jabberwocky.’ These words do not have a specific meaning, it is up to the reader to imbue them with some or to just appreciate them for the way they sound.
Example #3 The Caged Bird by Maya Angelou
‘The Caged Bird’ is a moving and dramatic poem that depicts the life of a caged bird and a free bird. Within the work, striking contrast is developed between the two birds. The free bird does not understand its own privilege, seen through its claimed ownership over the sky. All while the caged bird is tired, tied down, and far away from his dreams.
Take a look at these three lines from the fourth stanza of ‘The Caged Bird’:
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
These lines, especially compared to the stanza that came directly before them, are light and airy. This is accomplished through the references to the air and the use of the “s” consonant sound. It is an example of how alliteration can help develop a specific mood within a set of lines. The emphasis is placed on the “soft” wind and “sighing” trees. The bird is thinking of the “breeze,” and the reader’s mind is taken to the “bright” lawn.
Example #4 The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
Perhaps the most impactful example on this list, ‘The Raven,’ has numerous examples of alliteration within its lines. Poe leaned heavily on this technique in order to capture a specific kind of rhythm. Alliteration is seen through the repetition of sounds, words, and singular letters. For instance, take a look at these lines from the beginning of the poem:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
The rhyme is already very strong in these lines, and by adding in so many poignant moments of alliteration Poe’s lines read fluidly and excitingly. The alliteration draws a reader’s attention to the sound of the “rapping, rapping” on his “chamber/ door.” We should easily be able to imagine the sound, the speaker’s actions, and, as the poem progresses, the darkness that steals over the scene.