Poetic sound devices help the reader “hear” a poem. The way a poet structures their stanzas and chooses their words can bring a poem to life. Keep reading to learn more about common types of sound devices in poetry, as well as examples from famous poems.
Did you know that repeating a word or selecting a rhyme scheme can create sound in a poem? Repetition and rhyme are only a few of the many sound devices found in beautiful poetry. Check out these types of sound devices and see how many resonate with you!
Alliteration is a term for repeated letter sounds (usually consonants, but not always) at the stressed part of two or more words. One example is “glowing golden grains.” Another word for alliteration is initial rhyme or head rhyme.
Ezra Pound’s “The Seafarer” uses several examples of alliteration. See if you can spot them in the first eight lines:
May I for my own self song's truth reckon,
Journey's jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care's hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship's head
While she tossed close to cliffs.
(Pound, "The Seafarer")
The steady waves of alliteration that rise and fall. They mirror the rise and fall of a ship on the ocean, much as Pound’s speaker is describing. You can find more examples of alliteration in poetry here.
Like alliteration, assonance is the repetition of sounds in multiple words. Assonance describes repeated vowel sounds in the middle of words with different consonant end sounds. You can see assonance in the phrase “faded gray waves.”
A great example of assonance comes from “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore…
(Poe, “The Raven”)
“Dreary” and “weary” are rhyming words because they have the same ending sound, but “weak” shares the same /ea/ vowel sound as the surrounding words. “The Raven” contains several examples of assonance that both keep the poem moving and reflect the speaker’s slow descent into madness. Read this article for more poems that use assonance for sound effect.
It’s tricky to tell the difference between alliteration and consonance. While alliteration occurs at the stressed syllable in each word, consonance can happen anywhere, especially at the end of a word. When consonance happens at the end of the word along with assonance, it’s a rhyme.
An example of consonance occurs in “I Saw a Chapel” by William Blake:
I saw a chapel all of gold
That none did dare to enter in
And many weeping stood without
Weeping mourning worshipping
(Blake, "I Saw a Chapel")
The repeated -ing sound not only sets a pleasing pattern for the reader, it also creates the sound of church bells ringing. Take a look at this article for more examples of consonance in writing.
Bang! Zip! Screech! Sound words that are written out are known as onomatopoeia. Poetry uses onomatopoeia for both sensory language and short, choppy lines. See how D.H. Lawrence uses onomatopoeia in “Piano” to describe the sounds of a piano:
Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
Repeating a word in a poem may not make sense until you read it out loud. Repetition allows the speaker to emphasize a particular word and cause a desired sound in a poem. Check out the first stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” for an example of repetition:
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
(Eliot, "Ash Wednesday")
Two examples of repetition – “because I do not hope” and “why should” force the reader to ask these questions more than once. They reaffirm the prevalence of such thoughts in the speaker’s mind. You can learn more about the different types of repetition with these explanations and examples.
Even people who don’t read much poetry can recognize a rhyme. Rhyming words have the same end sound repeated at the end of a line. Many poems, such as free verse poems, don’t use a particular rhyme scheme.
Robert Frost uses an ABAAB rhyme scheme in “The Road Not Taken” to strong effect:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…
(Frost, “The Road Not Taken”)
The rhythm of a poem is its beat. It marks the accented syllables as well as the downbeats. You can track a poem’s rhythm by its feet and meter.
Clap to the beat of the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death” to see rhythm in action:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
(Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death”)
Lines 1 and 3 are in iambic tetrameter – four feet with the stress on the second syllable of each foot. Lines 2 and 4 are in iambic trimeter, which also stress the second syllables but in only three feet instead of four. Many of Dickinson’s poems follow this rhythm. Find more information about meter in poetry here.
Music with lyrics depends on the same poetic sound devices that you’ve just read about. You may not be able to immediately identify instances of alliteration, assonance, or onomatopoeia in a song, but once you view the lyrics as a poem, it becomes easier. Put on your favorite song and see how many poetic sound devices you can find!
Chances are, you use these poetic sound devices in your everyday conversation. But poetry doesn’t stop at what you can hear – it needs to activate all five senses to truly set the scene. For more poetry information, check out a resource that lists 20 different poetic devices.