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Alliterative poetry


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.


Alliterative metre

By wissynge of this wenche I dide, / hir words were so swete
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, though some have called thee
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.

‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary’
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.

A letter of the alphabet or sound which is not a vowel.
The particular measurement in a line of poetry, determined by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (in some languages, the pattern of long and short syllables). It is the measured basis of rhythm.
A pause, often indicated in text by a comma or full stop, during a line of blank verse.
Alliteration is a device frequently used in poetry or rhetoric (speech-making) whereby words starting with the same consonant are used in close proximity- e.g. 'fast in fires', 'stars, start'.
The language and vernacular (English) literature of the Anglo-Saxons in England between the fifth and eleventh centuries.
The language and vernacular (English) literature of the Anglo-Saxons in England between the fifth and eleventh centuries.
The English language which developed from Old English under the Normans and Plantagenets, from c. 1100-1470
Renaissance is literally 're-birth'. The term describes the movement, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries originating from Italy, where new areas of art, poetry, scholarship and architecture emerged.
Elizabethan and seventeenth century English metaphysical poet.
A figure of speech where a non-person, for example an animal, the weather, or some inanimate object, is described as if it were a person, being given human qualities.
A genre which ridicules some one or something. It can be poetry, drama or fiction.
the outer expression of one?s personality; the fa?ade of a character or personality adopted