In one of his early critical essays (published in 1874), young Robert Louis Stevenson upheld this view. "We must take exception," he wrote, "to the excesses of alliteration. Alliteration is so liable to be abused that we can scarcely be too sparing of it; and yet it is a trick that grows upon a writer with years."
Sure enough, as years passed the trick grew upon Stevenson himself. In 1885, after writing countless essays and the first draft of Kidnapped, he sounded a markedly different tune.
Each phrase in literature is built of sounds, as each phrase in music consists of notes. One sound suggests, echoes, demands, and harmonises with another; and the art of rightly using these concordances is the final art in literature. It used to be a piece of good advice to all young writers to avoid alliteration; and the advice was sound, in so far as it prevented daubing. None the less for that, was it abominable nonsense, and the mere raving of those blindest of the blind who will not see. The beauty of the contents of a phrase, or of a sentence, depends implicitly upon alliteration and upon assonance. The vowel demands to be repeated; the consonant demands to be repeated; and both cry aloud to be perpetually varied. You may follow the adventures of a letter through any passage that has particularly pleased you; find it, perhaps, denied awhile, to tantalise the ear; find it fired again at you in a whole broadside; or find it pass into congenerous sounds, one liquid or labial melting away into another.
And you will find another and much stranger circumstance. Literature is written by and for two senses: a sort of internal ear, quick to perceive "unheard melodies"; and the eye, which directs the pen and deciphers the printed phrase. Well, even as there are rhymes for the eye, so you will find that there are assonances and alliterations; that where an author is running the open A, deceived by the eye and our strange English spelling, he will often show a tenderness for the flat A; and that where he is running a particular consonant, he will not improbably rejoice to write it down even when it is mute or bears a different value.
(Robert Louis Stevenson, "On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature." The Contemporary Review, April 1885)
To hear how figures of sound can be used effectively in all sorts of writing, from advertising slogans to Shakespeare's plays, visit our new Exercise in Identifying Sound Effects in Poetry and Prose: Alliteration, Assonance, and Rhyme.
More About Sound Effects in Writing:
- Ten Titillating Types of Sound Effects in Language
- Tongue Twisters
- Onomatopoeia in "The Tunnel" by William H. Gass
Image: Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)