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Assonance -- alliteration's close relative

And no, despite having the same number of syllables and starting sounds (alliteration, remember?), there's nothing asinine about it.

Assonance describes what happens when neighboring words have the same vowel sound. The words may, but need not, rhyme. "Lake" and "sake" demonstrate assonance (long A), but also rhyme (due to the closing alliteration provided by the K sound). I spy a tile. Assonance? I, spy, and tile all have a long I. I and spy also rhyme. Not so tile.

Here's the first stanza from a Tennyson poem called The Lady of Shalott, which I use freely since, well, the copyright is long expired. Still, gotta give Lord Alfred his props.

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road run by
To many-tower'd Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Note all those long I sounds in the first four lines? Sure, some of them are for rhyme, but some are for sound/mood: "either" and "side" are not rhyme-oriented, neither are "field" and "barley". And in line three you have long Os in "clothe" and "wold", with an abundance of "ow" and "oo" sounds in the rest of the stanza. Tennyson, constrained by rhyme, was trying to evoke mood through the use of repetitive vowel sounds as well. Don't believe me? I'll change up Tennyson a bit, and then please read both aloud:

On both banks the river lie
Long rows of barley and of rye,
That cover the hills and meet the sky;
And through the field the road run by
To many-tower'd Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

A bit of the magic is missing, dontcha think, even though the technical meaning is pretty much the same? Tennyson wrote poems destined for recitation, and gave a lot of thought to how the words sounded when read aloud. And as a result, he was a frequent user of assonance.

But Kelly, you say, Tennyson is one of the Old Dead Poets. And you're right. But that doesn't mean he didn't know a thing or two about what makes for good poetry. And let's face it -- in the years between his death and today, many other poets have died, and not all that many of them are still studied widely. So let's learn from an ancient master, and at least put that particular poetry tool in our toolbox for times when it may come in handy. Times when you're looking to convey a particular mood, and the sound of the words really, truly is the one thing that will get your mood across.

Not that any writer should be going for this particular thing all the time. And goodness knows that other Fine Dead Poets (such as Robert Frost) didn't hold with relying on assonance to set mood -- or at least not on assonance alone. Then again, Frost didn't rhyme all that much. Although when he wanted to, he could rhyme like a champ. And use assonance, too -- just check out the start to Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

So many Os and "oos" in this. Lovely, long round vowels. They nearly demand a lingering tone, don't you think? Because when you read the words, you, like the author, linger in those woods a while -- it's the Ws and long O sounds. You can't help it.

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 30th, 2006 02:16 am (UTC)
How'd you get to be so smart?
Your examples are great!
May. 30th, 2006 02:26 am (UTC)
You are most welcome. And thanks for calling me "smart." :)
May. 30th, 2006 02:30 am (UTC)
oops, I am not really anonymous!
"Lake" and "sake" demonstrate assonance (long A), but also rhyme ...

I read this as "Lake" (large body of water) and "Sake" (rice wine favoured by the Japanese).

And I was perplexed, because obviously they don't rhyme at all!

It took me a few too many moments of puzzlement to understand the problem.

*needs coffee*
May. 30th, 2006 02:52 am (UTC)
Re: oops, I am not really anonymous!
It was la-ke (meaning, um, "the key of A in music lingo"), and therefore rhymes with sa-ke. But only if you pronounci it Sah-key. And really, I think it may have an A sound at the end of it.

Alright, it was "sake" as in "for goodness' sake".
May. 30th, 2006 06:17 pm (UTC)
Everyone born on April Fool's Day is smart. Didn't you know that? heh heh
Love your blog, Kelly!
Jun. 2nd, 2006 01:37 am (UTC)
Please please please tell me when you are moving to MY town so I can hang out with you, you poetry girl you!
Jun. 3rd, 2006 12:16 am (UTC)
No moves for me, at least not anytime soon. I'm happy here in NJ where I don't feel pressure to go to the gym, etc.

But it WOULD be lovely to meet you sometime!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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