The Sweet Sound of Alliteration


If you are of a certain age, you will remember the haunting 1969 song, “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Imagine what fun Stephen Stills must have had, coming up with these lyrics! According to Wikipedia, he wrote it as he was going through a painful break-up with singer Judy Collins, who was in therapy at the time; in this sense, she was his muse. The song is made doubly musical by the combination of the long, alliterative phrases with the melody itself. The extensive alliteration adds textual music to the mix to create an especially memorable effect. I’m sure English teachers everywhere used these lyrics to teach the concept of alliteration throughout the ‘70s and beyond—I know I did.

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds, a musical device used in both poetry and prose to create harmony and drama in language—for example, “she sells sea-shells by the sea-shore.” The name derives from the Latin word littera, meaning “letter of the alphabet”—sharing its origin with words like literal and literacy. Alliteration is naturally pleasing to the human ear, as evidenced by its frequent usage in everyday expressions such as “pretty please,” “tried and true,” “rhyme or reason,” “short and sweet,” and “last but not least.” In addition to bringing music to language, it adds emphasis to certain words and ties thoughts together by creating a kind of echo effect that establishes an aural relationship between them. “I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you!” proclaims Alfred Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), impressing Henry Higgins with his natural poetic gift.

Alliteration has a long and noble heritage. It was used extensively in Old English, Old Norse, and Old Irish literature, to establish rhythm as well as for musical effect. “Now Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings, / Leader beloved, and long he ruled / In fame with all folk since his father had gone,” begins chapter 1 of Beowulf (8th-11th c. AD; Gummere translation, 1910). Medieval poems, such as Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (both from the 14th century), employed alliterative verse as a fundamental feature: “Cursed be a cowardly and covetous heart” (Gawain, trans. Borroff). Since then, it has graced English poetry from Shakespeare to William Wordsworth to Walt Whitman. In the Prologue to Act I of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare writes “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.” Wordsworth’s heart “dances with the daffodils” (1807), adding the assonance of the repeated “a” vowel to the music; and “Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling!” Whitman proclaims in Leaves of Grass (1865).

In her nostalgic “Spring Rain,” Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) recalls the “rush of rain” and the “river of rain”—either of which sounds more appealing and dramatic than, say, the “downpour of rain” or the “flood of rain.” A familiar concept after this month in Crozet! e.e. cummings deliberately echoes medieval ballads in “All in green went my love riding,” with “softer be they than slippered sleep / the lean lithe deer / the fleet flown deer.” And, in addition to its gut-wrenching message, Gwendolyn Brooks’ extensive use of alliteration, along with rhyme, makes her most famous poem, “We Real Cool: The Pool Players, Seven at the Golden Shovel” even more poignant, as the speakers display musical prowess even as they waste their lives:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Rhetoricians, too, have used alliteration to emphasize points and create compose memorable speeches. John F. Kennedy used the device widely, for example in his Inaugural Address with “ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.” And who could forget the emphatic repetition of the “f” sound in Abraham Lincoln’s opening to his Gettysburg Address (1863): “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation….”? Or the repeated “s” in Winston Churchill’s prophetic 1940 call to arms: “we shall never surrender, and even if… this Island… were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas… would carry on the struggle, until…the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Stephen Stills is not the only song lyricist to take advantage of this musical language technique. Simon & Garfunkel croon an oxymoron with their “Sound of Silence,” and Bob Dylan seduces us with “Lay Lady Lay.” Gilbert and Sullivan even parody its use in their masterpiece Mikado (1885), as Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pish-Tush fear for their futures (hear how that trips off the tongue?) in a delightfully silly trio near the end of Act I:

“To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison, with a lifelong lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!”

(embeded in “I Am So Proud”)

Here the repeated, explosive “d,” “p,” “k,” and “ch” sounds create a sense of threat and danger. In “Helplessly Hoping,” by contrast, the alliteration of soft “s,” “h,” and “w” sounds lends a sad, mournful tone to the song and emphasizes the sense of loss it evokes. How could we fail to be moved by “wordlessly watching he waits by the window and wonders”? The poet cleverly echoes the w sound yet again in the next line, with “worries”; this pattern is repeated with the “heartless” lover “hearing” a “hello” and the “lingering lady” who says she is “lost.” The overall effect is graceful, original, and unforgettable.

Our beloved English language is infinitely flexible, fanciful, and fun. We all enjoy melodious expression, whether it be in songs, poems, speeches, or everyday conversation.

Alliteration can adorn the most commonplace communication, adding panache to a headline, a name, a business (think Best Buy or Dunkin’ Donuts), or a book title (The Great Gatsby or Angela’s Ashes)—even an expletive. Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat! Alliteration is everywhere.

“Helplessly Hoping”
by Crosby, Stills, and Nash

Helplessly hoping her harlequin hovers nearby
          Awaiting a word
Gasping at glimpses of gentle true spirit he runs
          Wishing he could fly
Only to trip at the sound of goodbye

Wordlessly watching he waits by the window and wonders
          At the empty place inside
Heartlessly helping himself to her bad dreams he worries
          Did he hear a good-bye?
          Or even hello?

Stand by the stairway you’ll see something certain to tell you
          Confusion has its cost
Love isn’t lying, it’s loose in a lady who lingers
          Saying she is lost
          And choking on hello

         They are one person

         They are two alone
         They are three together
         They are for each other


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