Analyzing literature can be pretty confusing, especially if you’re reading something that’s pretty complicated. That’s why it’s important to understand literary devices, which are tools designed to help you unlock the meaning of a text.
Think of literary devices like tools in a toolbox. Each device has a different use, so it’s important that you have a bunch of different options to choose from...especially when you’re crunched for time, like during an AP Literature exam.
That’s why we’re going to teach you everything you need to know about assonance, which is a literary device that helps a writer create both rhythm and tone. To do this, we’ll:
- Define assonance and talk about why it’s helpful in analyzing literature,
- Walk you through assonance examples in poetry and prose, and
- Give you four expert tips to help you find an analyze assonance in any text.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
What Is Assonance: Definition and Meaning
What is assonance, exactly? Luckily, the assonance definition is pretty straightforward! Assonance is defined as the repetition of similar vowel sounds within words, phrases, or sentences. (Remember that vowels are a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y.) When the same vowel sound is repeated multiple times in close proximity, you’ve found assonance.
The best way to understand how assonance works is to see it in action. Let’s look at the following sentence:
Read this sentence a few times. What vowel sound do you hear repeatedly? The answer: the long "e" sound (which you hear in words like “eek” and “creek”). Here’s the sentence again where we’ve bolded the repeated vowel sounds:
The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
As you can see, the long "e" sound repeats four times in the line, which is a textbook example of assonance!
Want another example? Check out this clip from My Fair Lady, which has a whole song that revolves around assonance:
Did you hear the assonance in the line, “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”? Eliza Doolittle really helps that long “a” vowel sound shine!
How Does Assonance Help You Analyze Literature?
Now that you know what assonance is, you’re probably wondering how it helps you analyze literature. There are three major ways assonance works: by creating rhythm, drawing attention to specific words, and by shaping the tone—or feeling—of the work.
How Assonance Creates Rhythm
Because assonance involves repetition, it can be used to create rhythm. This is especially important in poetry, where the rhythm often affects the meaning of the poem. Take these lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” for instance:
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
There’s quite a bit of assonance here, especially with the short “i” sound, which we’ve highlighted in bold above. The assonance gives the poem a drumming, march-like rhythm that mimics the terrified pounding of the speaker’s heart!
How Assonance Draws Attention to Specific Words
Secondly, the repetitive nature of assonance draws the reader’s attention to those words and phrases. In some cases, it can be the equivalent of the writer waving a red flag at the reader, signalling that there’s something important going on in that part of the text.
Let’s look at the first two lines of William Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” to see this in action:
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
Here, the assonance is in the long “o” sound, and it draws your attention to an important simile in the poem. In this comparison, the speaker imagines himself as a “lonely” cloud that “floats” high “o’er” the landscape. Through assonance, the speaker reveals that he sees himself as separate and isolated from the world around him.
How Assonance Shapes Tone and Meaning
Writers also use assonance to help create tones, or feelings, in their work. By stringing together different words and vowel sounds, writers can evoke everything from happiness to fear. Here’s an example of this at work in Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”:
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light
To see how this creates a tone, try reading this passage out loud. The assonance of the long “a” makes you emphasize the sound as you read it, especially since those are also stressed syllables. (Not sure what a stressed syllable is? Check out our guide to iambic pentameter.) The assonance makes these lines sound forceful, which adds to the lines’ insistent—almost desperate—tone.
When it comes to poetry, determining a poem’s tones is an important step to uncovering the work’s themes and messages. In the case of Thomas’ poem, the tone of these lines helps us understand how Thomas feels about death. For him, death isn’t something a person should accept passively—they should fight against it and embrace life as long as possible.
So in this instance assonance helps us determine the poem’s tone, which in turn leads us to one of the poem’s major themes!
Assonance Examples in Poetry
Assonance is a pretty common literary device in poetry, especially because it helps poets shape a work’s rhythm, rhyme, tone, and theme. Let’s read one more poem to see how assonance examples help us analyze a poem and its themes.
“The World Is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. —Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
When you analyze a full poem, there’s a good chance that assonance will only occur in certain parts of the work (rather than from start to finish). So don’t panic if you only find assonance in a few lines. Remember that assonance is often used to draw your attention to a specific moment or set of words, so just think of it as a clue to read that section a little closer.
In Wordsworth’s poem, assonance occurs in the very beginning of the poem with the long “a” and at the end of the poem with the long “o”. Let’s take a closer look at the poem’s last three lines:
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
This poem is about how people have become too enmeshed with civilization (that focuses on “getting and spending”) and have lost touch with nature. The assonance in last lines emphasize the poem’s theme and help reinforce the piece’s tone. The long “o” adds a mournful sound to the concluding lines, which reiterates the forlorn tone of the poem. The assonance also reinforces the speaker’s opinion that the way of the past is better than life in the present. By mentioning Proteus and Triton, two Greek gods, the speaker highlights how the modernization of the world has caused it to lose more than its connection to nature: it’s lost its wonder and mystery, too.
Assonance Examples in Prose
While assonance is most common in poetry, you can also find assonance in prose. In prose works like novels, short stories, and nonfiction, authors use assonance to make their work more vivid. It helps their ideas leap off the page, and it creates tones and feelings that resonate with readers (just like in poetry)!
Here’s an assonance example in literature that demonstrates how it can work outside of poetry.
Example : A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man tells the story of the religious and intellectual awakening of Stephen Dedalus, a young man who values beauty and art. Throughout the book, Stephen questions and rebels against the Catholic and Irish conventions of his childhood, and he eventually leaves Ireland for Europe.
Given Stephen’s love of art, it’s no surprise that the book often relies on poetic techniques to tell his story. Joyce often uses assonance, which we see in the following line:
The assonance here comes from the repetition of the short “i,” which occurs eight times in this one sentence! The assonance mimics the sound of whispering, which helps readers experience the “soft language” Joyce is writing about. Assonance causes this sentence to swish “in low circles round” the reader, too—which adds to the seductive tone of this short passage.
4 Expert Tips for Analyzing Assonance
Now that you know what assonance is, here are a few expert tips to help you find assonance and use it to analyze literature like a pro!
Tip 1: Read It Out Loud
Assonance is something you hear, rather than something you see. While you can look for similar vowels in words, English is a strange language where pronunciation can vary wildly, even when spelling is almost identical. Take “laughter” and “slaughter,” for example. Add one letter...and the pronunciation becomes insanely different!
By reading a poem out loud or listening to a recording of it, it becomes a lot easier to find the repetition of vowel sounds. It also is a lot easier to discern how assonance affects the poem’s rhyme, rhythm, and emphasis. Trust us: reading a poem out loud is the best way to find assonance!
Tip 2: Look at How Assonance Affects How a Passage Sounds
Once you’ve found the assonance, it’s time to think about how it affects the text you’re reading. One way to do this is to start thinking about how assonance contributes to how the passage and/or poem is read. Does it create short, staccato sounds or long, mournful ones? How do these sounds help show readers what the poem is about?
For instance, when assonance happens in short words right next to each other (like “the hard, stark markings on the car assembly line…”) can mimic the sound of factory, whereas longer, spread out assonance (the cool breeze moved along hills and moors) echoes the peacefulness of a breezy day!
Tip 3: Examine the Word Choice
Assonance only exists if a poet chooses a specific word that contains the same vowel sound as another word. That means each word in an assonant passage is important! Take a minute to examine the words the poet chooses. Are they related to each other in any way? Pull out a dictionary and look up each word. Along with their definition, do the words have connotative, or implied, meanings that change the way you might interpret the passage? How would using a synonym change the meaning of that line? Investigating why a writer uses the words he does--and paying close attention to what those words mean--can help you uncover a poem’s important themes.
Tip 4: Consider How Assonance Shapes the Poem as a Whole
Look at passage, section, sentence, or line that contains the assonance. Like we mentioned before, assonance is often a way for authors to signal that a specific part of their work is important. Keeping that in mind, ask yourself what you think the purpose of that passage is in the overall scheme of the poem. What is the poet saying in this passage? Does it come at a key moment or an important turning point? Often, poets use assonance to make a point, so there’s a good chance they’re using assonance to communicate a specific message or idea!
Remember: the best toolbox is a full toolbox. That’s why it’s important to understand more literary devices than just assonance! Here’s a list of the literary devices everyone should know and another in-depth guide to get you started.
If you’re getting ready for the AP Literature exam—and you probably are!—it’s a good idea understand what’s on the test before you take it. That’s why we’ve put together an expert guide to the AP Literature exam that tells you everything you need to know to ace it!
One of the most intimidating parts of the AP exam is the written portion, which requires you to use books you’ve read to answer essay prompts. But which books should you read to prepare? Check out this list of the best books to read for the AP Literature exam to help you build the best reading list possible.Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.