Prosodic Features: Sound Patterns

It has been said above that much of the effects of literary texts depend on various patterns of repetition (see Theme). The kind of repetition that most people associate with poetry is the repetition of sounds, in particular in rhyme. Apart from rhyme, there are other sound patterns in poetry which create additional meaning, such as alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia. Such sound effects always have a specific function in a poem. It is the task of analysis to explicate such functions, because they, too, are part of what the poem means, its overall and specific effects.


When two words have the same sound (phoneme) from the last stressed vowel onwards, they are considered to rhyme. In a full rhyme, the consonant preceding the last stressed vowel of the two words is different: night/delight, power/flower and so on.

There are a number of rhyme forms that deviate from the exact observance of the full rhyme.

One talks about a rich rhyme when the consonant before the last stressed vowel is identical: lap/clap, stick/ecclesiastic. When the two rhyme words are in fact the same, it is an identical rhyme. When two rhyme words look and sound the same but have different meanings this is called a homonym. Both rich rhyme and identical rhyme have at times been considered bad form.

Sometimes, only the consonants or only the vowel sounds are identical. In such cases one speaks of half-rhymes, slant rhymes or pararhymes:

reader/rider (consonance: same consonants but different stressed vowel)
poppet/profit, forever/weather (assonance: same vowels, different consonants)
opposite/spite, home/come (eye-rhyme: spelling identical but pronunciation different)

The most noticeable rhyme is the rhyme at the end of a line, the end-rhyme. But there are also lines within lines, so-called internal rhymes.

I’ve a head like a concertina; I’ve a tongue like a button-stick
I’ve a mouth like an old potato, and I’m more than a little sick,
B ut I’ve had my fun o’ the Corp’ral’s Guards: I’ve made the cinders fly,
And I’m here in the Clink for a thundering drink and blacking the
                                                                                                Corporal’s eye.
(From: Kipling
, Barrack-Room Ballads)

When a word in the middle of the line (usually before a caesura) rhymes with the word at the end of the line it is a leonine rhyme.

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat.
They took some honey, and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
(From: Lear
, The Owl and the Pussy-Cat)

Rhymes can be on one syllable or on two or three syllables. Rhymes of one identical syllable are called masculine rhymes: street/meet, man/ban, galaxy/merrily. Rhymes of two identical syllables are called feminine rhymes: straining/complaining, slowly/holy. Very rarely there are rhymes with three identical syllables, so-called triple rhymes: icicles/bicycles. The triple rhyme is often used for a humorous effect:

Her favorite science was the mathematical,
Her noblest virtue was her magnanimity,
Her wit (she sometimes tried at wit) was Attic all,
Her serious sayings darkened to sublimity;
In short, in all things she was fairly what I call
A prodigy – her morning dress was dimity,
Her evening silk, or, in the summer, muslin,
And other stuffs, with which I won’t stay puzzling.
(From: Byron
, Don Juan)

Rhyming lines can be arranged according to different patterns. The same rhymes are marked using small letters of the alphabet:

continuous rhyme
rhyming couplets
alternate rhyme
embracing rhyme
chain rhyme
tail rhyme

aaaa bbbb ...
aa bb cc ...
abab cdcd ...

abba cddc ...
aba bcb cdc ...
aab ccb ...

Sound patterns, especially rhyme, help to divide a poem into sections. These sections can help, for instance, to mark various stages of thematic development in a poem: the movement from despair to hope, from description to moral application and so on. This is notably the case in sonnets, where the octet and the sestet or the quatrains and the final couplet often form a contrast.

Alliteration, Assonance, Onomatopoeia

Apart from rhyme, there are other sound patterns that are remarkable in poetry and that are often used to link words which would not otherwise be connected (see also the List of Rhetorical Devices). These connections create meaning patterns. Three of these sound patterns shall be considered in more detail here: alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia.

An alliteration is the repetition of the same sound, usually a consonant, at the beginning of words or stressed syllables in close proximity.

But my grandest creation, as history will tell,
Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell.
(From: Eliot, Book of Practical Cats)

An assonance is the repetition of the same vowel sound in the stressed syllables of words in close proximity, while the consonants differ:

Rend with tremendous Sound your ears asunder,
With Gun, Drum, Trumpet, Blunderbuss & Thunder
(From: Pope, Imitations of Horace, Ep. II.i)

In these lines Pope also achieves an onomatopoetic effect, since the accumulations of the dark and booming u-sound combinations imitate the “tremendous Sound” of gun, drum, etc. It should be noted that onomatopoeia only ever works in conjunction with the meaning of the words used. One cannot recognise onomatopoeia in a language one does not understand. This has been famously demonstrated by John Crowe Ransom who changed Tennyson’s onomatopoetic line ”A murmuring of innumerable bees” into ”A murdering of innumerable beeves”. Even though only two small changes have been made to the sound, the meaning of the sentence is completely changed and no onomatopoetic effect whatsoever remains (cited in Abrams 1999: 199).


full rhyme
rich rhyme
identical rhyme
internal rhyme
leonine rhyme
masculine rhyme
feminine rhyme
triple rhyme
continuous rhyme
rhyming couplet
alternate rhyme
embracing rhyme
chain rhyme
tail rhyme