Definition of Assonance
Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound or diphthong in non-rhyming words. To qualify as assonance, the words must be close enough for the repetition of the sound to be noticeable. Assonance is a common literary technique used in poetry and prose, and is widely found in English verse.
Difference Between Assonance, Consonance, and Alliteration, and Slant Rhyme
The techniques of assonance, alliteration, consonance, sibilance, and slant rhyme are all closely related and include the repetition of certain sounds in quick succession.
- Consonance: Literary consonance is the repetition of the same consonant sounds. Like assonance, the repetition must be close enough to register in the ear of the listener. The repetition can happen anywhere in the words. Since the definition of assonance only includes vowel sounds, assonance and consonance can be understood to describe the same phenomena, yet with opposite meanings (an easy way to remember which one is which is that the word “assonance” starts with a vowel and the word “consonance” starts with a consonant). One such example of consonance is the “l” sound from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese”: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
- Alliteration: Alliteration is a special case of consonance and refers to the repetition of consonant sounds or blends at the beginning of words or in the stressed syllables of a line. Since consonance may happen anywhere in a word, the concepts are related but not identical. Historically, alliteration may also use different consonant sounds with similar properties, like the sounds “z” and “s”. Lord Byron uses alliteration in his poem “She Walks in Beauty,” as shown here: “She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies.”
- Sibilance: Sibilance is another special case of consonance wherein the consonant sound that is repeated is “s” or “sh”, which are called sibilant sounds. This example from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf contains sibilance: “There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes.”
- Slant rhyme or half rhyme: Slant rhyme includes the repetition of sounds that are similar but not quite rhyming. Usually the consonant sounds are repeated while the vowel sounds are different, or the vowel sounds are the same while the consonants are different. Thus, slant rhyme can use either consonance or assonance, or it can be a combination of the two. There are many other names for this type of rhyme, including lazy rhyme, near rhyme, approximate rhyme, suspended rhyme, imperfect rhyme, inexact rhyme, off rhyme, or analyzed rhyme. It is especially common in hip-hop lyrics. The following example is from a song called “Little Mercy” by hip-hop group Doomtree: “We broke our backs stacking bricks / We never broke our promises.” In this instance, there are several repeated sounds: the “b” in broke, backs, and bricks; the “k” in broke, backs, stacking, and bricks; the “a” in backs and stacking; and the “i” in bricks and promises.
Common Examples of Assonance
Several proverbs in English contain examples of assonance. The assonance in these phrases helps to make them more memorable in a subtler way than through rhyming words. A few of these proverbs are highlighted below:
- The early bird catches the worm.
- Honesty is the best policy.
- Let the cat out of the bag.
- A stitch in time saves nine.
- The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Significance of Assonance in English
While many may think that rhyme is one of the fundamental aspects of poetry, it was not at all common in Old English verse. The lexicon of Old English did not include many rhyming words. Instead, the chief poetic techniques of Old English storytellers were rhythm and meter, and consonance and assonance. Rhyme only became popular in English poetry later, after the Germanic language took on many new words from Romance languages. This is because Romance languages like French, Italian, and Spanish have many more words with similar endings. Indeed, rhyme was quite popular in the troubadour tradition, which began in France in the late 11th century and spread to Spain and Italy. Rhyme remained common in English verse for several hundred years, but has once again fallen out of favor. Meanwhile, contemporary poets still use assonance, consonance, and alliteration to provide more subtle phonemic unity.
Examples of Assonance From Literature
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
with battle tackle…
…no wise man in hall or weathered veteran…
…asleep from their feasting…
…they wept to heaven…
(Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney)
The epic poem Beowulf is one of the largest and oldest surviving texts from Old English. Seamus Heaney published a translation of the poem in 1999, and in his introduction made special note of the cadence and sound of Old English. He writes that he tried to keep his translation loyal to the importance and frequent usage of alliteration in the original. In the examples above, Heaney employs assonance to mimic the original phonemic unity in Old English.
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents…
(Sonnet 55 by Shakespeare)
This excerpt from Shakepeare’s Sonnet 55 contains two different assonance examples; the first is the short “i” sound in “princes” and “outlive” and the second is the long “i” sound in “shine” and “bright.”
These things are with us every day
even on beachheads and biers. They
do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks.
(“Today” by Frank O’Hara)
Frank O’Hara’s poem “Today” has several instances of assonance and consonance. In this excerpt, the assonance between the words “strong” and “rocks” helps to connect the two concepts.
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear
(“After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost)
Robert Frost’s poem contains assonance in the title with the repetition of the short “a” sound in “after” and “apple.” The excerpt here also contains several short “e” sounds in quick succession, giving these two lines an extra sense of unity.
But some punks want to jump up
With a sharp tongue and their fronts up
Like we got here by dumb luck
But they just want to become us.
(“Bangarang” by Doomtree)
This is another example from the hip-hop group Doomtree. Their song “Bangarang” contains many usages of assonance, but these four lines are particularly full of the technique. Out of these thirty-two words, more than a third of them (twelve) contain the same short “u” sound, with the addition of some consonance of “m” and “n”. This technique propels the rhythm forward in this section of the song.
Test Your Knowledge of Assonance
1. Which of the following is the best assonance definition?
A. A string of repeated sounds.
B. The repetition of a vowel sound in non-rhyming words.
C. The repetition of the same consonant sounds.
D. The repetition of sounds at the beginning of several words in a line.
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2. Which of the following examples contains assonance in the red letters?
A. “Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash…” (“Arms and the Boy” by Wilfred Owen)
B. “Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before…” (“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)
C. “You stand at the blackboard, daddy” (“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath)
D. “Screech, scream, holler, and yell— / Buzz a buzzer, clang a bell, / Sneeze—hiccup—whistle—shout” (“Noise Day” by Shel Silverstein)
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3. Why were assonance, consonance, and alliteration an important part of Old English poetry?
A. There weren’t many rhyming words in Old English and thus the poets used the techniques of assonance, consonance, and alliteration to provide phonemic unity and rhythm.
B. Poets in Old English didn’t like rhyming words and actively avoided them until forced to include them later on.
C. Rhyming words were more important that assonance, consonance, and alliteration, but Old English poets couldn’t think of enough of them.
D. Old English was a Romance language, and thus there were not many words that ended in the same way, making it difficult to find rhymes to use.
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