Definition of Consonance

Consonance is a literary device in which a consonant sound is repeated in words that are in close proximity. The repeated sound can appear anywhere in the words, unlike in alliteration where the repeated consonant sound must occur in the stressed part of the word. Consonance is also a similar concept to assonance, which refers to the repetition of vowel sounds in quick succession.

The word consonance comes from the Latin word consonantem, which means “harmony” or “agreement.” In different contexts the word consonance has different meanings, but the definition of consonance as a literary term came into being in the mid-1500s.

Difference Between Consonance and Assonance

Consonance and assonance are related, yet opposite, poetic devices. As stated above, consonance refers to the repetition of consonant sounds in nearby words whereas assonance refers to the repetition of vowel sounds. In both cases it does not matter where in the words the repeated sounds occur. An easy way to remember the difference between the two is that “consonance” begins with a consonant, whereas “assonance” begins with a vowel.

Special Cases of Consonance

  • Alliteration: Alliteration is a well-known form of consonance. It refers to the repetition of consonant sounds, but only in the stressed part of a word. For example, “The Wind in the Willows” is an example of alliteration because the “w” sound occurs in the stressed part of the words. “The Catcher in the Rye,” on the other hand, is an example of consonance but not of alliteration because the “r” sound is repeated in one unstressed incidence (catcher) and in one stressed incidence (rye).
  • Sibilance: Sibilance is a special case of consonance because it involves the repetition of consonant sounds, but only of sibilant consonants, i.e., “s,” “sh,” and “z.” One common example of sibilance is the following tongue twister: She sells seashells by the seashore.

Common Examples of Consonance

Many common phrases, idioms, and tongue twisters as well as famous speeches contain examples of consonance:

  • All’s well that ends well.
  • The early bird gets the worm.
  • Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
  • Curiosity killed the cat.
  • A blessing in disguise.
  • I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.—Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.—John F. Kennedy
  • So I close in saying that I might have had a tough break – but I have an awful lot to live for!—Lou Gehrig
  • So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.—Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Significance of Consonance in Literature

Consonance has played a big part in the creation of works of literature in many languages. It is especially significant in English, and has been found in works dating back to Old English epics, such as Beowulf. Languages that don’t have as many rhymes, such as English, often depend on other poetic techniques to create cohesion and internal rhythm. Consonance, therefore, is used frequently in poetry and drama as a technique to add aural harmony and rhythm. Consonance can also be found in prose, but it is not as common or obvious of a technique as in poetry.

Examples of Consonance in Literature

Example #1

HAMLET: To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?—To die,—to sleep,—
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die,—to sleep;—
To sleep: perchance to dream:—ay, there’s the rub;

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

This famous speech from Shakespeare’s Hamlet contains several consonance examples. In this case you can see the sibilance in the words “question,” “tis,” “suffer,” “slings,” arrows,” “outrageous,” and so on. Note that the “s” sounds occur in different places in each word, in both stressed and unstressed syllables. Sibilance, the special case of consonance, produces sounds that mimic whispering and also the sense of sleepiness. This is perfect for Hamlet’s monologue as he speaks to himself about the serious question of the nature of existence and the connection between sleep and death.

Example #2

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

(“Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe)

In this excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee” there is consonance of the “n” sound and the “l” sound. Poe repeats the name of his lost lover, Annabel Lee, many times in the poem (at least once in each stanza). He also uses many words with similar sounds to create unity and rhythm throughout the poem.

Example #3

I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

(“To the Harbormaster” by Frank O’Hara)

This excerpt from Frank O’Hara’s poem “To the Harbormaster” contains a few different examples of consonance. Like in Hamlet, there is the repetition of “s” sounds in “sanity,” “vessel,” “sinks,” and so on. There is also the repetition of the “v” sound from “vessel” to “voices” to “waves.” This excerpt represents the final four lines of the poem, and the images of the vessel, voices, and waves are very important. The consonance between the three images helps to connect them aurally.

Example #4

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

(“Birches” by Robert Frost)

Again, there are many different examples of consonance in this excerpt from Robert Frost’s famous poem “Birches.” There is the repetition of the “w” sound in “when,” “weary,” “wood,” “where,” “cobwebs,” “weeping,” and “twig.” All of these concepts are negative in the poem, producing a sense of being dragged down. Then there is also the repetition of the “l” sound in “life,” “like,” pathless,” “tickles,” and “lashed.” The line “life is too much like a pathless wood” especially emphasizes the consonance of this sound, connecting the concepts of life and the sense of desperation that comes with not knowing one’s path.

Example #5

The female, and two chicks,
each no bigger than my thumb,
in their pale-green dresses;

(“Hummingbirds” by Mary Oliver)

This short excerpt from Mary Oliver’s lovely poem “Hummingbird” has a few repetitions of the “m” sound. We can see it in the words “female,” “thumb,” and “shimmering.” The notable aspect of this usage of consonance is that it hints back at the title and main concept of the poem, hummingbirds. The repetition of the “m” sound is a subtle way to aurally keep the hummingbirds in the listener’s mind.

Test Your Knowledge of Consonance

1. Choose the best consonance definition from the following statements:
A. The repetition of consonant sounds in close proximity.
B. The repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words.
C. The repetition of vowel sounds in close proximity.

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]Answer: A is the correct answer. B more closely corresponds to alliteration and C is the definition of assonance.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following lines from Robert Frost´s poem “Acquainted with the Night” contains an example of consonance?

A. I have been one acquainted with the night.
B. I have passed by the watchman on his beat
C. I have outwalked the furthest city light.

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]Answer: C is the correct answer. The “n” sound in repeated in the words “been,” “one,” “acquainted,” and “night.”[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following quote from Polonius in Shakespeare´s Hamlet:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be:
For loan oft loses both itself and friend;

Which of the following consonant sounds is not an example of consonance in this excerpt?

A. l
B. w
C. n

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]Answer: B is correct. Almost every consonant sound that appears in this short excerpt is repeated with the exception of the w in borrower.[/spoiler]