A Field Guide to Alliterative Verse
Jangling like a Jay, or, Oodles of Awful Alliteration
Take this small sample of awful alliterative exuberance, dragged off the internet after a five minute search.
The author has even thoughtfully provided a numerical scale by which to measure just how much alliteration can assault your ears in a single sentence. (The now-no-longer-available URL was http://users.erols.com/dweeb/collection.html)
The panicked public protested the plutonium-powered planetary probe. (6.0)I painstakingly perused prodigious piles of practically purposeless printouts. (6.0)I snorted some snot-suppressing synthetic steroid spray. (6.5)My motor's a mind-boggling morass of malodorous muck. (4.75)I viciously vituperated the verminous vehicle to no avail. (2.0)I've an alarming affinity and an amazing aptitude for assembling amusing alliterations. (8.5) Needless to say, such savage assemblages of susurrating syllables have only a slight resemblance to poetry.
Alliteration in poetry serves a function. Or one of several functions:1. Emphasis. Linkage. And rhythm.2. Alliteration (when not overdone) makes the alliterated words stand out.3. When two words alliterate, they are drawn closer together mentally.
When the alliterated words stand out because their meanings are important, when they stand out also because they are natural bearers of stress, when the linkage between them seems important, and natural, then they define a rhythm whose rich pulses rise and fall like the beating wings of birds.
Ah. Caught me in the act, didn't you?
Unfortunately, many would-be poets have piled on the alliteration for the sheer love of ... well, twisting their tongues on less than lilting lines.
Take, alas, the 19th century poet John Lesslie Hall, one of the alliterative poets available on the internet. One of his Arthurian tales begins like this:
Few were the months ere foes numberlessAt the seashore's sands savagely harassedThe king of the Kentmen. The cruel, blood-thirstyMen of the Picts minded but little, then,Foes from the northland, how the fair-haired, dauntlessEarlmen of Anglia ever intrepidlyHewed them with edges, aiding the Kentmen,But hied southwardly, ceased not their ravenousSacking and hacking. Soon was it told to theWoe-begone king, the womanish, white-liveredLiegelord of Albion, that his earlmen and vassals,Scorning him bitterly, would bring them a kingFrom the southward and westward, a war-mooded leaderWho dauntless and doughty would drive him awayFrom kingdom and country. He called terror-struck ...
I must sigh. Just consider the pairs of words alliterated in these lines:
seashore ... savagelyking ... Kentmen ...cruelmen ... mindedfoes ... fair-hairedEarlmen ... Anglia ... intrepidlyedges ... aidingsouthwardly ... ceasedsacking ... soonwoe-begone ... womanish ... white-liveredAlbion ... earlmenbitterly ... bringwestward ... war-moodeddauntless ... doughty ... drivekingdom ... country ... called
What have they to do with each other? Notice how many of the alliterating words are not even the most important words in their phrases, and for making any kind of useful connection ... forget it. As a result, the rhythm too is uneven. The only way to make it sound rhythmic is to recite each half line as a kind of pulse with emphasis on the beginning stress. That makes it singsong, and there is little connection between the words that take the stress and the words that carry the most important meanings.
Only a few lines rise above the level of random repetition of words beginning with the same sounds:
... thewoebegone king, the womanish, white-liveredLiegelord of Albion ...
... a war-mooded leaderWho dauntless and doughty would drive him awayFrom kingdom and country.These rise to the level of mere cliche.
The mere repetition of sound for its own sake is, as one Middle-English poet put it, merely to "jangle as a jay". Bluejays and mockingbirds are loud, but one listens to them neither for melody nor meaning.