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What is Assonance

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

ASSONANCE (from Lat. adsonare or assonare, to sound to or answer to), a term defined, in its prosodical sense, as “the corresponding or riming of one word with another in the accented vowel and those which follow it, but not in the consonants” (New English Dictionary, Oxford). In other words, assonance is an improper or imperfect form of rhyme, in which the ear is satisfied with the incomplete identity of sound which the vowel gives without the aid of consonants. Much rustic or popular verse in England is satisfied with assonance, as in such cases as

“And pray who gave thee that jolly red nose?

Cinnamon, Ginger, Nutmeg and Cloves,”

where the agreement between the two o’s permits the ear to neglect the discord between s and v. But in English these instances are the result of carelessness or blunted ear. It is not so in several literatures, such as in Spanish, where assonance is systematically cultivated as a literary ornament. It is an error to confound alliteration,—which results from the close juxtaposition of words beginning with the same sound or letter,—and assonance, which is the repetition of the same vowel-sound in a syllable at points where the ear expects a rhyme. The latter is a more complicated and less primitive employment of artifice than the former, although they have often been used to intensify the effect of each other in a single couplet. Assonance appears, nevertheless, to have preceded rhyme in several of the European languages, and to have led the way towards it. It is particularly observable in the French poetry which was composed before the 12th century, and it reached its highest point in the “Chanson de Roland,” where the sections are distinguished by the fact that all the lines in a laisse or stanza close with the same vowel-sound. When the ear of the French became more delicate, and pure rhyme was introduced, about the year 1120, assonance almost immediately retired before it and was employed no more, until recent years, when several French poets have re-introduced assonance in order to widen the scope of their effects of sound. It held its place longer in Provençal and some other Romance literatures, while in Spanish it has retained its absolute authority over rhyme to the present day. It has been observed that in the Romance languages the ear prefers the correspondence of vowels, while in the Teutonic languages the preference is given to consonants. This distinction is felt most strongly in Spanish, where the satisfaction in rimas asonantes is expressed no less in the most elaborate works of the poets and dramatists than in the rough ballads of the people. The nature of the language here permits the full value of the corresponding vowel-sounds to be appreciated, whereas in English—and even in German, where, however, a great deal of assonant poetry exists—the divergence of the consonants easily veils or blunts the similarity of sound. Various German poets of high merit, and in particular Tieck and Heine, have endeavoured to obviate this difficulty, but without complete success. Occasionally they endeavour, as English rhymers have done, to mix pure rhyme with assonance, but the result of this in almost all cases is that the assonances, &c., which make a less strenuous appeal to the ear, are drowned and lost in the stress of the pure rhymes. Like alliteration, assonance is a very frequent and very effective ornament of prose style, but such correspondence in vowel-sound is usually accidental and involuntary, an instinctive employment of the skill of the writer. To introduce it with a purpose, as of course must be done in poetry, has always been held to be a most dangerous practice in prose. Assonance as a conscious art, in fact, is scarcely recognized as legitimate in English literature.