|Rhetorical alliteration from "I Have a Dream" delivered August 28, 1963 by Martin Luther King, Jr.|
The repetition of some letter or sound at the beginning of two or more words in close or immediate succession,
as,—“Apt alliteration's artful aid,”— a line by Charles Churchill.
1. Alliteration is the parent of modern rhyme.
In Icelandic and Gothic poetry, it was reduced to a system which soon passed into our literature and became the metrical basis of early English Poetry. Here is an example from Piers Plowman:
By Saint Paul, quoth Perkin,
Ye profer me fayre,
That I shall swynke and swete
And sowe for us bothe
And other labors do for thy love
Al my lyfe tyme,
In covenant that thou keep
Holy Kyrke and myselfe
Fro wasters and fro wycked men
That this world destroyeth...
2. In competent hands, alliteration becomes a legitimate source of metric effect.
Be careful to place alliterative words at some distance, arranging them so that they mark the metre and become the key words of the line:
Heard ye the arrow hurtle in the air?
The ear is satisfied by a repetition of the h sound which it has just begun to lose. But the music of the above example would be ruined by a very slight transposition:
Heard ye the hurtling arrow in the air?
In this case, the ear is annoyed by the too quick succession of the other aspirant, a.3. Alliteration may be used to heighten an effect.
It may be effective in generating an echoing dissonance to give force to speech or writing. In Pope's famous line from his translation of The Odyssey—
Up the high hill he heaved the huge round stone,
the continuous halts called for by the repetition of the aspirate h produce an effective idea of long-drawn effort.4. Alliteration is naturally pleasing.
That our ear finds a natural comfort in alliteration is evidenced by the fact that many of our compound words are formed on this principle. There is no other ground for saying milkmaid in lieu of milk-girl or butcher-boy in lieu of butcher-man. Fancy-free, hot-headed, browbeaten, heavy-handed (or -hearted) might also be instanced. In fact, the alliterative tendency is continued in our proverbs:
Where there is a will there is a way
A miss is as good as a mile
As thick as thieves
Better safe than sorry
5. Alliteration becomes a defect when used excessively.
One of the earliest instances of misplaced ingenuity is in this line by Ennius, circa 200 B.C.:
O Tite, tute Tati tibi tanta tiranne tulisti.
(O thou tyrant, Titus Tatius, such great troubles you brought upon yourself!)
By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, alliteration was allowed to run riot. Books were published with such titles as Seven Sobs of a Sorrowful Soul for Sins. John Trapp's Commentary on the Holy Bible offered the following gem:
As empty stomachs can hardly sleep, so neither can graceless persons, till gorged and glutted with sweetmeats of sin, with murdering morsels of mischief...
Such a hoof is grown over some men's hearts as neither ministry, nor miracle, nor mercy can possibly mollify.
It is in ridicule of this runaway alliteration that Shakespeare in Love's Labor's Lost makes Holofernes say,
I will something affect the letter, for it argues facility:
The playful princess pierced and pricked a pretty, pleasing pricket.