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alliteration

alliteration (əlĭtˌərāˈshən) [key], the repetition of the same starting sound in several words of a sentence. Probably the most powerful rhythmic and thematic uses of alliteration are contained in Beowulf, written in Anglo-Saxon and one of the earliest English poems extant. For example:

Ða com of more under mist-hleopum
Grendel gongan; Godes yrre baer …

(Then came from the moor, under the misty hills,
Grendel stalking; the God's anger bare).

Beowulf, Book XI

The poet was drawing here on an even older Germanic tradition, just as he was setting a high standard for other poets in Anglo-Saxon, who produced such alliterative works as Widsith, Deor's Lament, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Ruin. Although the tradition lay dormant for centuries, an alliterative revival occurred in England in the mid-1400s, as evidenced by such masterworks as Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (see Langland, William; Pearl, The). Shakespeare parodies alliteration in Peter Quince's Prologue in A Midsummer Night's Dream :

Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely breach'd his boiling bloody breast.

Modern poets have continually renewed the possibilities of alliteration, e.g., Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Pied Beauty":

Glory be to God for dappled things …
Landscapes plotted and pieced—fold, fallow and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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