Assonance is perhaps the most neglected of the three basic (and most well-known) phonetic poetic devices. Possibly because there are fewer vowels than consonants in most languages—and even fewer words beginning with a vowel—consonance and, especially, alliteration have attracted much more attention both from literary scholars and keen readers of literature.
However, poets have always been acutely aware of its power, as can be evidenced from this excerpt penned by England’s first Poet Laureate, John Dryden, in the “Dedication” to his much-admired translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. “We must not only choose our words for elegance, but for sound,” he states rather self-evidently. To perform this, he goes on, “the poet must have a magazine of words, and have the art to manage his few vowels to the best advantage, that they may go the farther. He must also know the nature of the vowels, which are more sonorous, and which more soft and sweet; and so dispose them as his present occasions require.”
As the following 10 examples demonstrate, great poets have adhered to Dryden’s philosophy for centuries, employing assonance time and again, to many different ends. So that you can experience the versatile effects of this device in full, we tried illustrating a different structural use of it with each of the examples below.
10 Examples of Assonance Poems
Example #1: Anonymous, “The Twa Corbies” 5-6
In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new-slain Knight.
“The Twa Corbies” (or “The Two Crows” in modern English) is probably a late Scottish version of the older English folk ballad titled “The Three Ravens.” Regardless of its time of composition – it may date from as late as the 18th century – it offers a great example of how assonance sometimes compensates for rhyme. Namely, most of the poem is properly rhymed, but these two verses use assonant words instead of rhyme (“dyke” and “Knight”) to produce pretty much the same effect. The effect is amplified via two more words which contain the “long i” (“behint” and “lies”) and an internal assonance of the long “a” (“fail” and “slain”).
Example #2: William Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis 1071-1074 (1593)
My sighs are blown away, my salt tears gone,
Mine eyes are turn’d to fire, my heart to lead:
Heavy heart’s lead, melt at mine eyes’ red fire!
So shall I die by drops of hot desire
Sometimes assonance is used to further bind rhyming couplets and stanzas. The verses above are articulated by Venus as her mourning cry over the body of the dead Adonis. Each of them includes at least one word which contains the “long i” vowel: “sighs” in the first verse; “my” in both the first (twice) and the second one; “mine,” “eyes,” and “fire” in the second and the third one; and “I,” “die,” and “desire” in the concluding one. Interspersed among them are few effective assonances of the “short e” (“heavy,” “lead” and “melt”) and of the “short o” (“drops” and “hot”).
Example #3: William Shakespeare, Macbeth V.1.86 (1606)
My mind has mated and amaz’d my sight
As can be seen in this verse uttered by the distraught doctor of Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, assonance works well in combination with alliteration. Here the alliteration of “m” (“mind”/”mated”) is made even more prominent and melodious through the introduction of assonant pairs for each of the words in the alliterative couple; thus, the “long i” of “mind” is echoed in “sight” and the “long a” of “mated” in “amaz’d.”
Example #4: John Milton, Paradise Lost II.621 (1674)
Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death.
This is how Milton masterfully sums up his description of hell: in ten monosyllabic words, eight of which are nouns. A textbook example of poetic expertise and intelligence, the verse once again shows how assonance, alliteration and rhyme can work together to produce perfect harmony. Even though merely ten syllables long, the verse contains one internal rhyme (“dens”/”fens”), an alliteration of d (“dens”/“death”) and three different assonances: of the “short o” (“rocks” and “bogs”), of the “short e” (“dens,” “fens,” and “death”), and of the “long a” (“caves,” “lakes,” and “shades”).
Example #5: Jonathan Swift, “A Description of a City Shower” 61-63 (1710)
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.
If you have ever watched Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, you certainly remember Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro’s) misanthropic – and metaphorical – prophecy at the beginning: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets…” Well, almost three centuries before him, Britain’s foremost satirist, Jonathan Swift, made a startlingly similar assessment of modern life, using the description of a city shower to unmask the dirt and filth lying below the artificiality of civilization. And just like Travis (compare: “scum”), he uses quite a lot of words which contain the open-mid back unrounded vowel [ʌ] in the poem’s closing triplet: “dung,” “guts,” “blood,” “puppies,” “mud,” “come,” “tumbling” and “flood.” is The assonance here almost onomatopoeic; it almost seems as if the sound [ʌ] not only emphasizes but also echoes the distasteful, ugly images clustered in the three verses.
Example #6: Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism 30-31 (1711)
Each burns alike, who can or cannot write,
Or with a rival’s, or an eunuch’s spite.
Caesura is a break in a verse where one phrase ends, and another one begins. Even though modern poets tend to use run-on lines and free verse specifically to break its regularity, Alexander Pope – and the musically-minded poets of his time – were, on the contrary, interested in finding different ways to accentuate it. And in the heroic couplet cited above, Pope has emphasized the caesuras with assonance. As you can see, all four words preceding the breaks (indicated in writing with commas) contain the “long i” [aɪ]: “alike,” “write,” “rival’s” and “spite.”
Example #7: Samuel Johnson, “The Vanity of Human Wishes” 85 (1749)
No dangers fright him and no labors tire.
In the sometimes slightly “ungrammatical” rhetorical figure called zeugma, one word or a phrase joins two different parts of a single sentence. For example, in the verse above, “him” should be understood as linking both verbs, even though, strictly speaking, it can logically apply only to the first one. However, Dr. Johnson employs an assonant pair of verbs (“fright” and “tire”), to emphasize their alliance. Whether with zeugma, antithesis, or chiasmus, 18th-century poets do this often: they use assonance to stress rhetorically parallel words.
Example #8: Edgar Allan Poe, “Ulalume” 10 & 19 (1847)
Here once, through an alley Titanic,
In the realms of the boreal pole.
Linking words through the use of assonance often occurs in the closest proximity. In fact, this is perhaps how assonance has most often been used by both common folks and poets, whether they talk of “liquid siftings” (T. S. Eliot, “Sweeney Among the Nightingales”) or someone’s “dimpled chin” (Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece). Edgar Allan Poe excels in linking adjectives and nouns through assonance, as evidenced in the first and last verse from the second stanza of “Ulalume.” It is the “short a” which links “alley” and “Titanic” here and the long “o” which generates the melodious effect in “boreal pole.” A far more famous example of this in Poe is the “long a” pairing “radiant maiden.” Can you guess the poem it originates from?
Example #9: Emily Dickinson, “I Heard A Fly Buzz – When I Died – (591)” (1896)
I heard a fly buzz – when I died –
Assonance is often unjustly defined as “a substitute for rhyme;” in fact, as you were able to see here, this is only one of its functions and uses. And Emily Dickinson is famous for her mastery of it. Many of her poems use assonance instead of end-rhyme, with some authors going as far to suggest that she used full rhyme deliberately to depict only her moods of confidence and assonance to portray her moods of uncertainty. However, as you can see in the verse above, Dickinson is capable of using assonance to emphasize important words within a single verse. “I,” “fly,” and “died” all echo the same vowel: the “long i.”
Example #10: Ezra Pound, “Ballad for Gloom” 11-12 (1908)
I have played with God for a woman,
I have staked with my God for truth…
In “Ballad for Gloom” – one of his best-known early poem – Ezra Pound echoes the vowel diphthong [eɪ] (the “long a”) in two structurally parallel non-rhyming words found in two successive lines: “played” and “staked.” Percy G. Adams, a great scholar of assonance, refers to this effect as anaphoric assonance, since here the assonance both breaks and strengthens another rhetorical figure, the anaphora, i.e., the repetition of words at the beginning of neighboring phrases.