Assonance refers to the repetition of identical stressed vowels in nearby syllables when they are followed by different consonants or consonant clusters. Even though sometimes omitted for brevity, the latter part of the definition is equally important as the first one, because If identical stressed vowels are followed by identical consonant sounds, then the literary device in question is not assonance, but rhyme.
Thus, the phrase “white knight” is an example of rhyme; however, the title of Dylan Thomas’ poem “In the White Giant’s Thigh” is an example of assonance. In both cases, the “long i” [aɪ] is repeated in all of the stressed syllables, but only in the first one the consonant behind it sounds identical as well (“waɪt naɪt” vs. “waɪt ˈʤaɪənts θaɪ”).
Assonance was frequently used as a substitute for rhyme in early Celtic, Spanish, and French poetry, which is why it is sometimes (somewhat unsuitably) still called “vowel rhyme,” “vocalic rhyme” or even “half rhyme.” When Augustan and Romantic English poets started using rhymes on an almost regular basis, they saw in assonance a great way to amplify the musical effects of their poems. However, at least since the second half of the 19th century, modern poets once again have started employing assonance in place of a rhyme for the exact opposite effect.
Some of literature’s most skillful users of assonance are Alexander Pope, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Dylan Thomas.
Assonance in a Sentence
Example #1: Idioms
For nearly a week afterwards, the domestics observed significantly to each other, that Miss Isabella was as ‘nice as pie!’
OED lists this 1855 Which: Right or Left? sentence as the earliest occurrence of the idiom “nice as pie.” As is obvious, the idiomatic expression—as many others (“a good look,” “a dead end,” “high time,” etc.)—is made memorable through the use of assonance, as both “nice” and “pie” contain the “long i” but not repeating consonants.
Example #2-3: Proverbs
Variety is the spice of life.
In the proverb above, all of the nouns contain the “long i” [aɪ]. Interestingly enough, according to a wide-ranging 2012 study, about a quarter of English proverbs assonate. In the example below, assonance of the “long o” [əʊ] is effectively resolved in the “short o” of the last word (“moss”):
A rolling stone gathers no moss.
Example #4: Nursery Rhymes
As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?
The nursery rhyme above is actually a riddle – so do try to solve it if you want a break from all this literary talk with a simple mathematical exercise. Highly assonant, this riddle employs effective assonance of both the “long i” (in “I,” “Ives” and “wives”) and the “short e” (in “met,” “man,” “seven,” “sacks,” “had,” “cats,” and “many”). In one instance (“sacks”/”cats”), assonance works as a nice substitute for rhyme.
Example #5: Advertising Slogans
Finger lickin’ good.
KFC’s famous slogan—“finger lickin’ good”—works so well because of the assonance of the “short i” repeated three times in the initial four syllables. However, it works even better when the first two words are paired up with KFC’s actual product—”finger lickin’ chicken”— which adds two more [ɪ]’s to the mix and spices the assonance with a dash of rhyme.
(Further Reading: 10 Examples of Assonance in a Sentence)
Assonance in Poetry
Example #1: Alexander Pope, First Satire of the Second Book of Horace 25-26 (1733)
Rend with tremendous Sound your ears asunder,
With Gun, Drum, Trumpet, Blunderbuss and Thunder.
Alexander Pope was a deft user of many rhetorical devices, and assonance was certainly not an exception. In the second verse from the couplet above, he manages to achieve an almost onomatopoetic effect, combining the assonance of the “short u” vowel [ʌ] with bilabial consonants (“b,” “p,” and “m”) to create the effect promised in the first verse: “tremendous sound” which rends the ears asunder.
Example #2: John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” 1-2 (1820)
Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time…
There are not many verses more beautiful than the two which open John Keats’ great “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” However, it often goes unjustly unnoted that a large portion of this beauty the verses owe to the assonance of the “long i” which Keats masterfully uses in all five nouns present in the excerpt: “bride,” “quietness,” “child,” “silence,” and “time.” And to make the verses even more sweet-sounding, this grand assonance is nicely prepared by the humble introductory assonant pair “still unravished,” tightly linked through the repeated use of the “short i.”
Example #3: Algernon Charles Swinburne, “August” (1866)
The colour of the leaves was more
Like stems of yellow corn that grow
Through all the gold June meadow’s floor
Even detractors of Algernon Charles Swinburne hail him a musical genius; and, indeed, his mastery of the phonetic literary devices is, to say the least, impressive. Even though published in his debut poetry collection, “August” already exemplifies this brilliantly. The repeated “o” sounds—whether short or long—permeate the excerpt, appearing in almost every second word: “colour,” “more,” “yellow,” “corn,” “grow,” “gold,” “meadow,” and “floor.” This produces a highly euphonious effect, which Swinburne strikingly manages to sustain throughout the whole poem.
Example #4: Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Wreck of the Deutschland I.7.1-4 (1875)
It dates from day
Of his going in Galilee;
Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey;
Manger, maiden’s knee;
Considered by many to be perhaps his greatest masterpiece, the 35-stanza Christian ode “The Wreck of the Deutschland” demonstrates wholly Gerard Manley Hopkins’ masterful use of not only his unique contributions to prosody (instress and sprung rhythm) but also of some much more common literary devices such as assonance and alliteration. The “long a” hauntingly dominates the four verses excerpted above, appearing no less than seven times, twice in combination with the alliterative “d” and “m” (“dates”/”day” and “manger”/”maiden”).
Example #5: Dylan Thomas, “Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait” 49-52 (1941)
Whales in the wake like capes and Alps
Quaked the sick sea and snouted deep,
Deep the great bushed bait with raining lips
Slipped the fins of those humpbacked tons.
Not many modern poets—if anyone—have managed to replicate Dylan Thomas’ verbally dense and rhythmically resonant verses. In the thirteenth quatrain of his “Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait,” he demonstrates how exceptionally skillful he is in using assonance to produce enduringly evocative imagery. And it’s fascinating to think that even though seven words in the stanza use the “long a”— and six of them are monosyllabic—none of them rhyme with each other: “whales,” “wake,” “capes,” “quaked,” “great,” “bait” and “raining”. “This symphony of vowels and consonants proves Thomas a master,” notes William York Tindall in A Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas. “Not Hopkins himself could put sweeter sounds together.”
(Further Reading: 10 Examples of Assonance Poems)
Assonance in Literature
Example #1: William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 1 III.3.48 (1591)
When Death doth close his tender dying eyes.
In Shakespeare on Theatre, Robert Cohen provides a list of all 136 different adjectives that William Shakespeare uses in his plays to vividly describe the human eyes. As in the example above (“dying eyes”), many of them are quite melodious, assonant adjective + noun sets. Can you find where the Bard uses three other assonant pairings of this kind: “admiring eyes,” “desiring eyes,” and “fiery eyes”?
Example #2: Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee” 38-39 (1849)
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride…
Much like Swinburne, Edgar Allan Poe was a skilled user of assonance, mainly for its musical effects. To some—like the French symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire—this made him the designer of verses “carved like diamonds”; to others—such as Aldous Huxley—Poe’s use of phonetic literary devices seemed analogous to a sensitive man wearing “a diamond ring on every finger.” You can understand both sides of the argument if you try reading the above couplet out loud. As you can already see, here, in merely two verses, Poe uses the “long i” no less than eleven times! However, it is difficult to deny how melodious and memorable this makes the ending of “Annabel Lee,” Poe’s last complete poem.
Example #3: Robert A. Harris, Writing with Clarity and Style (2003)
So flows the river, going past the town, its whole load of toxins, fish, and sediment pouring evermore into the sea.
The example above is borrowed from Robert Harris’ celebrated “Guide to Rhetorical Devices for Contemporary Writers.” It’s only fitting to borrow the analysis of this highly assonant sentence as well. “The repeated ‘long o’ sounds in the [highlighted] words,” explains Harris, “create a drawn-out sonorousness, suggesting both flow and inevitability of movement.”
Songs with Assonance
Example #1: Alan Jay Lerner, The Rain in Spain
The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain
In My Fair Lady, the 1956 musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle is a Cockney flower girl incapable of breaking her dialect speech patterns even after hundreds and hundreds of elocution exercises with Professor Henry Higgins. For example, instead of saying “reɪn” and “Speɪn” she says something along the lines of “raɪn” and “Spaɪn.” She finally gets it while singing the above verse in which five words (three of which rhyme) contain “the long a” [ei]: “rain,” “Spain,” “stays,” “mainly,” “plain.”
Example #2: The Doors, Light My Fire
You know that it would be untrue
You know that I would be a liar
If I was to say to you
Girl, we couldn’t get much higher
Come on baby, light my fire
Come on baby, light my fire
Try to set the night on fire
Widely considered one of the greatest songs ever written—reaching #35 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time—The Doors’ “Light My Fire” offers an exquisite example of the sonorous power of one-vowel assonance. In addition to the rhymes—which necessarily all contain the “long i” [aɪ] (“liar,” “higher,” “fire”)—the lyrics also add many other words which include the same vowel sound and, thus, serve to build and/or keep up the momentum: “I,” “light,” “try,” “night.” And this goes on in the second verse as well, which adds few more assonant words: “time,” “mire,” “try,” “funeral pyre”!
Example #3: Radiohead, Exit Music (for a Film)
We hope that you choke…
Radiohead often use assonance in place of rhyme in their songs. As you can hear in this all but a textbook example, it is this literary device which has helped them pen some of the most hauntingly beautiful and yet chillingly disturbing verses. Rhyme may be at times too complete and childlike to carry the burden of heavy thoughts; assonance is much more adult and generates a lingering effect. Fittingly, the verse above is not the only one in “Exit Music (for a Film)” which employs assonance. You can also hear it in “the long a” of “today/ we escape” and “the long i” in “breathe/ keep breathing.”
(Further Reading: 5 Songs with Assonance)