Figure of Sound in Prose and Poetry

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Figures of sound can often be heard in advertising jingles and slogans. This advertisement for Swift's Pride Soap appeared in 1909. (Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

A figure of speech that relies primarily on the sound of a word or phrase (or the repetition of sounds) to convey a particular effect is known as a figure of sound. Although figures of sound are often found in poetry, they can also be used effectively in prose.

Common figures of sound include alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, and rhyme.

Examples and Observations:

  • Alliteration
    "A moist young moon hung above the mist of a neighboring meadow."
    (Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, 1966)
  • Assonance
    "Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the same horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men."
    (Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937)
     
  • Consonance
    "'This earth is tough stuff,' he said. 'Break a man's back, break a plow, break an ox's back for that matter.'"
    (David Anthony Durham, Gabriel's Story. Doubleday, 2001)
  • Onomatopoeia
    "Flora left Franklin’s side and went to the one-armed bandits spread along one whole side of the room. From where she stood it looked like a forest of arms yanking down levers. There was a continuous clack, clack, clack of levers, then a click, click, click of tumblers coming up. Following this was a metallic poof sometimes followed by the clatter of silver dollars coming down through the funnel to land with a happy smash in the coin receptacle at the bottom of the machine."
    (Rod Serling, "The Fever." Stories From the Twilight Zone, 2013)
  • Rhyme
    "A veritable fusillade of smells, compounded of the pungent odors of deep fat, shark's fin, sandalwood, and open drains, now bombarded our nostrils and we found ourselves in the thriving hamlet of Chinwangtao. Every sort of object imaginable was being offered by street hawkers--basketwork, noodles, poodles, hardware, leeches, breeches, peaches, watermelon seeds, roots, boots, flutes, coats, shoats, stoats, even early vintage phonograph records."
    (S.J. Perelman, Westward Ha! 1948)
  • Figures of Sound in Poe's Prose
    "During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher."
    (Edgar Allan Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher," 1839)
  • Figures of Sound in Dylan Thomas's Prose
    "There was no need, that holiday morning, for the sluggardly boys to be shouted down to breakfast; out of their jumbled beds they tumbled, and scrambled into their rumpled clothes; quickly at the bathroom basin they catlicked their hands and faces, but never forgot to run the water loud and long as though they washed like colliers; in front of the cracked looking-glass, bordered with cigarette cards, in their treasure-trove bedrooms, they whisked a gap-tooth comb through their surly hair; and with shining cheeks and noses and tidemarked necks, they took the stairs three at a time.

    "But for all their scramble and scamper, clamour on the landing, catlick and toothbrush flick, hair-whisk and stair-jump, their sisters were always there before them. Up with the lady lark, they had prinked and frizzed and hot-ironed; and smug in their blossoming dresses, ribboned for the sun, in gym-shoes white as the blanco'd snow, neat and silly with doilies and tomatoes they helped in the higgledy kitchen. They were calm; they were virtuous; they had washed their necks; they did not romp, or fidget; and only the smallest sister put out her tongue at the noisy boys."
    (Dylan Thomas, "Holiday Memory," 1946. Rpt. in The Collected Stories. New Directions, 1984)
  • Figures of Sound in John Updike's Prose
    - "Do you remember a fragrance girls acquire in autumn? As you walk beside them after school, they tighten their arms about their books and bend their heads forward to give a more flattering attention to your words, and in the little intimate area thus formed, carved into the clear air by an implicit crescent, there is a complex fragrance woven of tobacco, powder, lipstick, rinsed hair, and that perhaps imaginary and certainly elusive scent that wool, whether in the lapels of a jacket or the nap of a sweater, seems to yield when the cloudless fall sky like the blue bell of a vacuum lifts toward itself the glad exhalations of all things. This fragrance, so faint and flirtatious on those afternoon walks through the dry leaves, would be banked a thousandfold and lie heavy as the perfume of a flower shop on the dark slope of the stadium when, Friday nights, we played football in the city."
    (John Updike, "In Football Season." The New Yorker, November 10, 1962)

    - "By rhyming, language calls attention to its own mechanical nature and relieves the represented reality of seriousness. In this sense, rhyme and allied irregularities like alliteration and assonance assert a magical control over things and constitute a spell. When children, in speaking, accidentally rhyme, they laugh, and add, 'I'm a poet / And don't know it,' as if to avert the consequences of a stumble into the supernatural. . . .

    "Our mode is realism, 'realistic' is synonymous with 'prosaic,' and the prose writer's duty is to suppress not only rhyme but any verbal accident that would mar the textual correspondence to the massive, onflowing impersonality that has supplanted the chiming heavens of the saint."
    (John Updike, "Rhyming Max." Assorted Prose. Alfred A. Knopf, 1965)
  • Poetic Functions of Language
    "[English poet] Gerard Manley Hopkins, an outstanding searcher in the science of poetic language, defined verse as 'speech wholly or partially repeating the same figure of sound.' Hopkins' subsequent question, 'but is all verse poetry?' can be definitely answered as soon as the poetic function ceases to be arbitrarily confined to the domain of poetry. Mnemonic lines cited by Hopkins (like 'Thirty days hath September'), modern advertising jingles, and versified medieval laws, mentioned by Lotz, or finally Sanskrit scientific treatises in verse which in Indic tradition are strictly distinguished from true poetry (kavya)--all these metrical texts make use of the poetic function without, however, assigning to this function the coercing, determining role it carries in poetry."
    (Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature. Harvard University Press, 1987)
  • Word Play and Sound Play in a Poem by E.E. Cummings
    applaws)

    "fell
    ow
    sit
    isn'ts"

    (a paw s
    (E.E. Cummings, Poem 26 in 1 X 1, 1944)
  • The False Dichotomy Between Sound and Sense
    "'In plain expository prose, such as this book is written in,' says [literary critic G.S. Fraser], 'both writer and reader are consciously concerned not mainly with rhythm but with sense.' This is a false dichotomy. The sounds of a poem connected by rhythm are indeed 'the living body of thought.' Take the sound as poetry and there is no further stage of interpretation into poetry. Just the same is true of periodic prose: the rhythm of the period organizes sound into a unit of sense.

    "My criticism of the logical tradition in grammar is just that stress, pitch, attitude, emotion are not suprasegmental matters added to the basic logic or syntax but other glimpses of a linguistic whole which includes grammar as usually understood. . . . I accept the now unfashionable view of all the old grammarians that prosody is a necessary part of grammar. . . .

    "Figures of thought like understatement or emphasis are no more and no less expressed in sound than anything else."
    (Ian Robinson, The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • Figures of Sound in 16th-Century Prose
    - "Suspicion that an inordinate attraction to figures of sound was likely to tyrannise a writer's style, that the claims of the ear threatened to dominate those of the mind, has always dogged analysis of Tudor prose, especially in the case of [John] Lyly. Francis Bacon indicted [Roger] Ascham and his followers for precisely this failing: 'for men began to hunt more after words than matter; more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, and the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of the matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment' [The Advancement of Learning]."
    (Russ McDonald, "Compar or Parison: Measure for Measure." Renaissance Figures of Speech, ed. by Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber. Cambridge University Press, 2007)

    - "Shall my good will be the cause of his ill will? Because I was content to be his friend, thought he me meet to be made his fool? I see now that as the fish scolopidus in the flood Araris at the waxing of the moon is as white as the driven snow, and at the waning as black as the burnt coal, so Euphues, which at the first increasing of our familiarity was very zealous, is now at the last cast become most faithless."
    (John Lyly, Euphues: the Anatomy of Wit, 1578)

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