When it occurs in poetry, dissonance is a disruption in the rhythm of a verse. Any harmony the poem might’ve had is broken. This might be through the end of a rhyme scheme or the purposeful combination of hard consonant sounds that interrupt the feeling of a line.
Definition of Dissonance
Dissonance comes from the Latin word, “dissonantem,” eating “differ in sound.” When it’s used, it makes reading poetry or prose uncomfortable. In some cases, dissonance is used not to interrupt or make the reader feel poorly. Instead, it is used to help convey a particular feeling. This might be one of abruptness or surprise. A writer could also create a feeling of unease or suspicion with dissonance. If a character is sharing their inner thoughts and trying to express their emotional stressors, it’s likely that a poet will look to dissonance as a way to emphasize that pain.
While many examples of dissonance are related to uncomfortable or painful situations, it’s also possible to use it humorously.
Ways to Create Dissonance
- Sounds: one of the most common ways is to bring together word sounds that clash. This can be vowels and consonants. It’s most effective when the sounds contrast with one another.
- Rhythm: when an irregular rhythm is used, often readers will sense that something is dissonant but not readily place what it is. When the rhyme scheme changes in addition to the meter it can be even more effective.
- Word sounds: bringing together harsh-sounding words is one of the best ways to create dissonance. These unusual and sometimes hard-to-say words can easily interrupt a poem.
Examples in Literature
Wind by Ted Hughes
In this Hughes poem, the poet depicts a night of fear as a family cowers inside their home. A terrifying storm rages outside. They are at the mercy of nature with nothing to do but wait out the storm and hope that it eventually dies down. Here are a few lines from the poem that demonstrate how dissonance can be used in poetry.
At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope…
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly.
In these lines, Hughes uses vowel sounds quite differently. There are so many different ones that they start to clash with one another. The words are pointed and clear. He uses ones like “brunt,” “drummed,” and “strained” in an effort to convey a particular feeling.
Discover more Ted Hughes poems.
Macbeth by William Shakspeare
William Shakespeare’s works are often the source of various literary devices. Dissonance is no exception. Within Macbeth, readers can find several examples of clashing vowel sounds, unusual word use, and more. In the following, often-cited lines, the poet uses blank verse. He also various up the vowel sounds in order to create an unpleasant dissonant effect:
Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get thee back. My soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.
Almost every vowel sound in this small excerpt is different. Macbeth uses these lines while speaking to and threatening Macduff, the man who is fated to take his life.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poems.
Carrion Comfort by Gerard Manley Hopkins
This sonnet is labeled as one of Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets.” It belongs to this set of poems that he wrote during one of the darkest periods of his life. They also include poems like ‘No worst, there is none‘ and ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.’ In ‘Carrion Comfort,’ Hopkins describes the depths of a speaker’s despair and what he’s learned throughout his depression. This is the perfect setup for the inclusion of dissonance. Here area few lines that demonstrate how Hopkins used the technique:
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones?
There are examples of alliteration and dissonance in these lines that are meant to make the reader feel the speaker’s inner struggle. Readers can also find examples in lines like “Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear” and “Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod.”
Dissonance, Assonance, and Euphony
These three terms are related to one another and often confused for one another. Dissonance is the opposite of assonance. The latter is the repetition of vowel sounds in a line of text, whether that be poetry, prose, or drama. Dissonance, on the other hand, often occurs when vowel sounds are not repeated and sounds are far more scattered and different. Euphony refers to the quality of sound in a piece of writing. It, along with cacophony, are ways of describing what the sound in a piece feels like. A cacophonous piece of writing lacks melody or harmony. It’s often unpleasant to hear/read. A euphonious piece of writing is the opposite. It is pleasing to the ear.
Why Do Writers Use Dissonance?
Dissonance is used to give a piece of writing a very specific, uncomfortable effect. As the examples above show, it’s best used when a writer wants to convey someone’s emotions. Turmoil, fear, discomfort, and desperation are all likely candidates. Macbeth’s fear of Macduff and his desperation to overcome him is conveyed in clear language and feeling to the reader through the use of dissonance.
Related Literary Terms
- Repetition: an important literary technique that sees a writer reuse words or phrases multiple times.
- Sibilance: a literary device in which consonant sounds are stressed. These are primarily “s” and “th” sounds.
- Alliteration: a technique that makes use of repeated sounds at the beginning of multiple words, grouped together. It is used in poetry and prose.
- Consonance: the repetition of a consonant sound in words, phrases, sentences, or passages in prose and verse writing.
- Listen: Alliteration, Assonance, and Consonance
- Listen: Sound Devices in Poetry
- Read: Macbeth by William Shakespeare