Alliteration: The repetition of the same letter or sound at the beginning of syllables following in
close succession, as, e.g.. Pope: 'Puffs, powders,
patches, bibles, billets-doux.' Though the term alliteration is said to have been invented by Pontanus in the fifteenth century, the use of the figure was known to the Greeks and Romans. It is remarkable, however, as being a special characteristic of
old Teutonic poetry (Anglo-Saxon, Middle-English, Old Saxon, Icelandic, etc.). The lines in alliterative
poetry were divided into two sections, the first having two alliterative syllables, the second one, as in the following line from Piers Plowman: 'Hire robe was ful riche, of red scarlet engreyned'.
Occasionally, however, four or more alliterative syllables occurred. The alliterative syllables were always accented, and not necessarily the first syllables of the words in which they appeared.
Chaucer's verse, though rhymed, contains a considerable amount of alliteration (as in, e.g., the
Knight's Tale), and Spenser also affected it. It is usually condemned when used to excess in
modern poetry, but is undoubtedly a source of beauty and strength when properly employed.
How to cite the article:
Vivian, Percival. A dictionary of literary terms. London: G. Routledge & sons. 1900. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/literaryterms/alliteration.html >.
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