A writer can use cacophony in poetry and prose. It is useful when one wants to create a jarring effect or convey the noise of a particular moment. Cacophonous words usually contain hard syllables, especially hard “k” sounds. Cacophonous words are the most effective when they are paired with words that are euphonious or harmonious. It is this contrast that allows readers to interpret the line exactly as the writer intended.
Some writers, scholars, and readers also consider words that are generally unpleasant to say or sound bad together as cacophonous. The dissimilar sounds create a similar effect to the explosive consonants (explored below).
Definition of Cacophony
The word “cacophony” comes from the Greek meaning “bad sound.” It is used to describe the musicality of language, or in this case, how interrupting the natural flow of writing with hard, sharp words can change how the reader perceives a piece of writing. It is the opposite of euphony, which is concerned with creating harmonious sounds in literature.
Cacophony makes use of something known as an explosive consonant. These are consonants that have an explosive, popping sound when spoken. They are B, D, X, Q, Ch, C, T, P, K, and G. It should be noted that some of these sounds, such as the “G” sound, depend very much on pronunciation. A sentence is considered cacophonous when it contains multiple words that use these consonants. They are usually grouped for the clearest and more memorable effect. They do not need to be tongue twisters, nor do they necessarily need to be hard to pronounce.
Examples of Cacophony in Literature
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
‘Jabberwocky’ is Lewis Carroll’s best-known poem and a wonderful example of cacophony. The poem is filled with Carroll’s nonsense words like “Bandersnatch” and “Jabberwock.” Here is an excerpt:
Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!
In these lines, readers should also take note of how he uses cacophony to make the Jabberwock seem more dangerous. It has “claws that catch” and “jaws that bite.”
Explore more Lewis Carroll poems.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Macbeth, one of William Shakespeare’s best-loved and commonly quoted tragedies, contains a great example of cacophony.
Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky!
The repetition of the word “out” in these lines, as well as the use of words like “murky,” helps to set the tone and convey how emotional Lady Macbeth is. Her guilt over the murder is coming to the surface.
Discover the poetry of William Shakespeare.
In this incredibly musical poem, Edgar Allan Poe focuses on bells and the wide variety of reasons they might be ringing. There are four different types described in the poem. Some ring softly and peacefully, while others are “throbbing and sobbing.” The latter is far more difficult to contend with and haunts the speaker’s mind. Here are a few lines from the poem that uses cacophony:
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
The use of words like “over sprinkle,” “twinkle,” and “Runic rhyme” are great examples in these lines. Not to mention the overwhelming use of repetition. That should be familiar to those who have read Edgar Allan Poe’s best poems.
Read more Edgar Allan Poe poems.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ he uses cacophony several times. Here are a few lines that demonstrate it:
With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
Agape they heard me call:
Gramercy! they for joy did grin,
And all at once their breath drew in.
As they were drinking all.
In these lines, Coleridge uses words like “black” and “baked” in the first line to convey the scene’s desperation. “Agape” is another great example in the second line. Their situation is quite difficult, and it’s easy to imagine their desperation when cacophonous words are used.
Explore Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry.
Cacophony and Euphony
Cacophony and euphony are opposites. The first is concerned with the repetition of explosive consonants, while the latter occurs when harmonious, smooth words are used. Letters like l, m, n, r, and y are generally considered to be euphonious. When the two are used together, the effect can be quite interesting. They contrast one another and draw even more attention to their musical qualities.
Why Do Writers Use Cacophony?
There are many different reasons why a writer might want to use cacophony. It can convey a sense of urgency, drama, and fear. It can also make lines harder to read and more stressful. The latter is perfect when the characters are tense, fearful, or are expecting something dramatic to happen. When it is used repetitively, as it is in ‘The Bells’ by Edgar Allan Poe, it creates music of its own. Despite the fact that cacophony is defined by its uncomfortable clashing consonants, it can greatly benefit the rhythm of a poem.
Specifically, a writer might use this technique when they want to depict something fantastical and overwhelming, something violent, chaotic, or noisy. Dark thoughts can also be quite interesting when they’re written with cacophonous words.
Related Literary Terms
- Euphony: a literary device that refers to the musical, or pleasing, qualities of words.
- Alliteration: a technique that makes use of repeated sounds at the beginning of multiple words, grouped together. It is used in poetry and prose.
- Sibilance: a literary device in which consonant sounds are stressed. These are primarily “s” and “the” sounds.
- Assonance: occurs when two or more words that are close to one another use the same vowel sound.
- Consonance: the repetition of a consonant sound in words, phrases, sentences, or passages in prose and verse writing.
- Read: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Listen: Euphony & Cacophony
- Watch: Cacophony Meaning with Examples