Alliterative poetry is a stylistic form of poetry in which consonantal sounds at the beginning of words are repeated in order to stress a specific sound in a particular phrase or line. Created for an oral culture, the earliest English poetry was alliterative, with a distinct metre that had two half lines, each containing two stresses, separated by a caesura, and where the first stress of the second half line alliterated with the stresses of the first half line.
The alliterative stresses ensured the rhythm of the poem, helping it to be easily remembered and recited. They could also be used to emphasize a particular mood or meaning within the context. Later poetry used alliteration as a more general device, to create mood and flow.
The Old English classic poem Beowulf is regarded as the oldest poem written in alliterative metre. This distinctive patterning was used in much Old English and Middle English verse, but had almost died out by 1500. Renaissance poets onwards escaped the tight confines of alliterative metre and employed alliteration with greater freedom.
- Piers Plowman (1385?) by William Langland (editor’s slashes indicate the division into half lines, bold the stressed alliteration)
Til I foryat youthe / and yarn into elde.
And thane was Fortune my foo, / for al hir faire biheste,
And poverte pursued me / and putte me lowe
Later use of alliteration
- Death be not proud (Holy Sonnet 10) (1609) by John Donne (1572-1631)
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow ..
John Donne frequently uses alliteration within his poetry to emphasize a concept he is suggesting. Here he is personifying Death and belittling his power. By repeating the ‘d’ sound he subtly satirises Death’s apparent fearsomeness, whilst his alliteration of the soft ‘m’ of ‘Much’ and ‘much more must flow’ indicates the ease of Donne’s attitude towards dying.
- The Raven (1845) by Sir Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
‘Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.’
‘w’ alliteration to convey the tired nature of the poem’s speaker, followed by a repetition of ‘d’ which heightens the sense of jarring confusion regarding the persona’s thoughts.